Return to Kyrgyzstan


AFP/Unattributed

In June, I wrote a post about violence erupting in Kyrgyztan and its impact on women. For those who do not know, an unidentified number of Kyrgyz systematically targeted Uzbek neighbors for several days, including nearly burning down one of largest cities in the state and moving slowly out to the rural areas. Homes and shops were burned and women and children fled through the streets, being trampled, caught in the crossfire, and potentially targeted for sexual and emotional abuse. They were herded toward the border even though the Kyrgyz had intentionally blocked the ditch they would have to cross to flee to safety; in other words, the women and children were intentionally forced together in a holding area while Kyrgyz killed off the men. The first female acting-President, Roza Otunbayeva, begged for direct military action from international governments that came too late. Her ascendancy to power and proposed reforms, including the use of Kyrgyzstan by U.S. troops stationed there, is said to have sparked the ethnic cleansing attempt targeting her fellow Uzbekis and potentially fueling the inaction of the U.S. Base. Like the current scapegoating of Latin@ and Muslim immigrants in the U.S., the Uzbekis were targeted because of Political turmoil, unemployment, growing migration, criminal activity, and growing religious intolerance and at the center was the belief that an ethnic minority female president was not only unqualified to lead but also playing favorites by nature of shared identity.

A month later, women were at the center of rebuilding both the burned out communities and the sense of trust across ethno-religious lines. The city itself maintained a curfew and tensions continued in general, flaring up in small acts of violence on both sides. Like so many communities who experienced unchecked ethnic cleansing then end of major violence has left the population weary, scarred, and angry. Women in particular are surviving the scars of being raped, beaten, disappeared, taken hostage, forced to flee their homes, wounded, and killed. Many are trying to rebuild families that were separated only to find that most of their missing relatives are dead. And yet, according to Dr. Nurgul Djanaeva, the founder and president of the Forum of Women’s NGOs of Kyrgyzstan, no one had created bureaus specifically for dealing with women’s trauma, the potential for ongoing targeting of women in the aftermath, or the documenting of gender based violence against women during the conflict. One other major hindrance has been the stigma of rape and sexual assault that is making women wary of being counted or exposed while seeking treatment.

uzbek women voting amidst the ruble of their burned out home/unattributed

Women’s NGOs are at the forefront of bringing women together to heal. They are taking a lesson from other ethnic cleansing incidents in Europe, Africa, and Latin America to address specific gender based violence and support the centrality of women’s voices and experiences in rebuilding the nation. The hope is that rather than sparking ethno-religious misogyny in the future, women’s leadership will become a regularized part of Kyrgyzstan life.

While the conflict has led to opportunities for women, the trajectory of that conflict and its specific use of gender based violence largely unchecked by international peace keeping forces is becoming all too familiar. The strategic location of the U.S. military base in Kyrgyzstan and the ties to Russia were leveraged against the proposed autonomy of the people and the safety and security of women, children, and ethnic minorities. The rhetoric turning neighbor against neighbor is no longer the stuff of “never again” (WWII) but instead the common day occurrences that allow “good Americans” to burn other people’s holy books regardless of its impact on them or the U.S. troops they claim to support and have radio broadcasts using racial “puns” about rape and sexual assault of Latinas while others form vigilante groups and beat immigrants, often to death. What is the dividing line between those whose fears and misplaced envy is harnessed by radio stations and politicians into a lethal genocidal force and those who claim their references to “re-loading” are metaphorical? And why is it that despite what we know about how women are targeted both during these conflicts and in the makeshift camps built to keep them safe in the aftermath, why do we still fail to take this knowledge into account to ensure women’s bodily integrity? And why, after all the genocide we have seen in this world, are the military and economic interests of major Super Powers more important than safety and security of women’s lives? Haven’t we learned that societies where women have access to education, family planning, and representation and poor people have access to jobs, food, and shelter free of discrimination, are more stable than places where both populations, and their intersections, are exploitable? But then asking these questions might make us have to look at foreign policy through the lens of humanity rather than profit and ask when and where we are culpable and how these “exceptions” are in fact just more extreme versions of behaviors that permeate our own society.

“From Text to Film”

blogging librarian flickr/ http://libraryofdigress.files.wordpress.com

One of the great perks about blogging is that you get to have conversations with a wide range of people about things you may not have thought about or about which you had not thought of in the ways you do as a result of those conversations. I’ve been joking around for a while now that I wanted to teach a class on novels adapted to film. While many people have done this before, and I get a lot of leeway in my department(s) with my cinema courses, novels to film is fairly clearly in the realm of the English Department, the one place at this uni I don’t teach. The other issue has always been that since my courses tend to meet both the gen ed and the specialization cores in several fields, there are certain expectations about the material my courses contain. In thinking about the novel to film genre, it means that I would likely have to expand to Made for Television movies to incorporate enough diversity into the curriculum and then the discussion becomes not only about shifts from one medium to the other but also the freedoms or lack there of granted television vs film. I did not want to get bogged down in discussions solely about the latter to the detriment of the overarching questions about identity. While I knew I could probably pull this course off if I modified the time-frame, ie set it in the historical period I teach, that would mean having to read novels that would ultimately get us bogged down in discussions about period and expectation around identity vs the movement from one form to the other. Ugh, does your head hurt yet? Mine certainly did. So I let it go.

Enter Scott Pilgrim and his bevy of fans + the book meme, in which I mocked the film “Bram Stroker’s Dracula” for not actually following the story and rewriting some key characters. Like an aha moment, I found these two blogging conversations combining to make me question the age old encoding/decoding debate in new ways. In other words, there is a metaconversation taking place about the meaning of movies that is radically changing the discourse of how see and understand film. This post is about those changes; if you want my movie review of Scott Pilgrim look here.

In talking about my experience of the film/reviewing it and  its racial and gender content, I have received multiple comments here and elsewhere that reference the graphic novels as counterpoint. In looking at commentary on the internet, I found the same thing. In other words, people reviewing the movie have largely talked about the movie itself: its content, the acting and directing, and the overall plot, and occasionally, its niche appeal. The people responding to their reviews have pretty much all gone back to the source material to contradict what people say is in the movie. Yet, what most have reacted to in the film: (1) the absence of female perspective, (2) the focus on a largely unlikeable character or characters, and (3) confusing or choppy plot, have all been fairly consistent. Are we to believe that because the original graphic novels make clear that Scott Pilgrim is meant to be unlikeable that the film does a good job of telling its uninformed audience this information when so many did not get it? Or are we meant to excuse the absence of female subjecthood in the film because the graphic novels apparently center them and their thoughts?

brian o’malley/oni press

As I said in my review, should Scott’s supposed growth, reduced to a few minutes in the film that I argue are undermined by the way he once again treats Knives at the end, negate racialized and/or racist depictions of API Americans in the movie? This is an issue that most reviewers and comment makers have yet to address precisely because one of the film’s more stereotypical scenes is taken directly from the pages of the graphic novel without any editing or changes; sadly, the reviewer from the Harold seems to explain it best when he says that as a white surbuban gaming male who fits the intended demographic he was easily able to overlook the bollywood scene until a comment on twitter about race in the film made him think through the movie with race in mind. Like it did for me, the meta-conversation surrounding this movie, ie between novel, film, and multiple internet and social network sites, is creating a radical rethink of meaning on all sides. And for everyone who has gone off the deep end over Dr. Laura’s comments, tell me, what is the difference between Dr. Laura  calling a black woman “oversensitive” because she does not like the racist jokes made by her white husband’s friends in her home and white fans of Scott Pilgrim saying “hater” to anyone who mentions the racial depictions of API Americans in this film?

Race issues aside, there seems to be a struggle going on between those who saw the film on its own and fans who saw the film and read the graphic novels or simply read the graphic novels but have not gone to the film. The latter have been quite vocal about the fact that people criticizing the film “don’t get it” despite the consistency of the reviews. This reaction varies considerably from earlier fans who willingly critiqued films for failing to represent the text upon which they were based. Films with huge fan bases in fact, have almost always had to address fan expectations in order to be successful at the box office. When fans say the film is not accurate enough, movies generally tank at the box office.

(note the Asian mom’s broken English)

Brian O’Malley/Oni Press

Scott Pilgrim is tanking at the box office. Yet fans are defending it and the studio is blaming it on Michael Cera. Apparently, several of Cera’s last few films did not do well, so he is an easy whipping boy. Yet I can think of no one better to play a 20 something year old slacker who quips about life, resents having to defend himself, and looks like the kind of guy you expect to see in the arcade and root for when attacked. I think he was a perfect choice and his comedic timing are spot on as always. Even if we factor in the people who have just had enough of his t-shirted, saggy chords, skinny boy schtick, there is still something more interesting going on here.

The cry from fans of “you don’t get it”, seems like a generational issue to me. In this context, the film becomes irrelevant. What is at stake is youth who identified with Scott Pilgrim as a graphic novel and see it as a depiction of their generational angst in the same way people thought of American Graffitti, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Breakfast Club, or even The Big Chill or Diner.  Their embrace of the graphic novels at a gut level combines with the total rejection of the movie by accredited film reviews who are all over the age of 30 (to riff on that old adage “don’t trust anyone over 30″). These “older” reviewers have combined their general dislike of the movie with comments about largely negative comments about the slacker generation and in some cases outright ageism. This stance makes them easy pickings for youth who already feel screwed over, ignored, or condescended to by the generations before them. The more these youth respond with “you don’t get it”, the more older people bristle. Yet the mode of this conflict is not one in which either side is openly talking about age and stage but rather cinema vs text, with one group pointing emphatically at the failings of the movie and the other willingly filling in the blanks or omitting those failings with the original text in order to maintain their stance.

I find this fascinating.

First, I do think there is a generational issue in the reception of the film. I walked out of the moving clear that there were at least two cultural reasons why this film did not appeal to me and that they overlapped. I also know there were other people in my theater who felt the same way, because they kept looking over at me in confusion. And when I frowned at the racist parts, they were so attuned to my presence that they reacted as well. Nothing like being a zoo exhibit or a fossil at a movie screening …

Second, I’m wondering what it says about the nuances of marketing that they can graft a film so carefully onto an identity as to make those who identify with it ignore the disconnects present. In other words, when other movies have differed from the text people have complained. These films were marketed as stories or true adaptations not as cultural artifacts. This movie seems to be encoded and decoded by its core audience as the latter and therefore omissions and lapses are forgiven or ignored. Even the feminist viewers in this group have been largely silent about the absence of well-rounded female characters in the movie. Those fans who acknowledge it, only bring it up to once again point to the source material as a way of avoiding the critique of the film.

In some ways, it reminds me of the limited critique of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Despite including episodes in which Native Americans were evil genocidal ghosts on Thanksgiving, spreading syphilis and needing to be killed because “they were engaging in genocidal revenge”,  resurrecting “the primitive” in discussing Buffy’s origins, or including rape of beloved characters by other beloved characters, fans of Buffy refuse to address race and gender issues embedded in the show. Those who breach them are summarily dismissed as “not getting it”. And like Scott Pilgrim fans, when footage of these events or director’s script notes are actually shown to an audience as proof, as happened at two conferences I went to in the late 90s, fans simply make up elaborate excuses based on the overall storyline of the show. And of course there is always the a line or two that are included in these scenes to mask the overarching racism that they can glom onto.

So what is that spark needed to so thoroughly fuse audience with product? And why does it work so well at erasing or allowing for the justification of marginalization even for audiences who are quite savvy about how marginalization works? What makes something off limits? And why do these conflicts seem to take on generational significance whether it is between reviewers and fans or fans and older non-fan directors?

I’m going to be mulling this over for the rest of the term because, as I said, I find it fascinating but also because now I really am going to teach that course in a way that places it firmly in my disciplines and gets at some difficult questions about race, gender, sexuality, class and fandom. In Spring, the campus bookstore is going to be full up on graphic novels, required itunes passes for videos of tv shows, and classics on Race, Class, Gender and the Media. I can’t wait!

WordPress Wednesday Aug 18: The Fail Continues

Think about this as you read these stats, blogging is not only the new way of publishing it is increasingly the way to access the old way of publishing as well, it is also second only to twitter as a go to source for media pundits looking for “the pulse of the nation” or the “important story”, and it is one of two media sites that form the basis for much electronic research. When we are not included in the places that legitimate and draw attention to the voices on the internet we are in essence once again being erased and shoved out. Since blogging is a medium that so many diverse people have made their home, and wordpress among the top places to do it, doesn’t it warrant at least a question about why they choose such a narrow focus in representing both their brand and all of us?

brittanica.com

Here are this week’s stats:

Images

  • men of color: 18
  • women of color: 6
  • TOTAL PICS OF PEOPLE OF COLOR: 24
  • white men: 40
  • white women: 32
  • TOTAL PICS OF WHITE PEOPLE: 72

The number of white people pictured on chosen posts outnumbered people of color by almost 3xs as much this week. All of these images were of able-bodied cis gender people. Images of white women were 5xs more likely than images of women of color and even more were likely to be seen on the Freshly Pressed page pointing you there because images of women of color appeared in posts with images of white people and the latter were almost always chosen for the Freshly Pressed page image. White men outnumbered men of color two to one and would also have been overrepresented on the Freshly Pressed page for the reasons listed above.

Authors

  • men of color: 3
  • women of color: 2
  • TOTAL AUTHORS OF COLOR: 5
  • white men: 12
  • white women: 30
  • TOTAL WHITE AUTHORS: 42

The number of people of color featured remained constant from last week representing an average of 1.7% of the total available bloggers for highlighting. The number of people of color blogging on wordpress is unavailable but they certainly make up more than 2% of the 280,000 bloggers from which to choose. There were also three authors of unknown race, only one of whom was a woman and one author who identified as asexual gender neutral, who was white.

Gender & Sexuality

  • pictures of cis women: 37
  • pictures of cis men: 55
  • pictures of trans women: 1
  • pictures of trans men: 3
  • female authors: 33
  • male authors: 17
  • gender unknown: 1
  • gender neutral: 1
  • articles about feminism: 3
  • articles about queer rights: 1
  • articles about, related to, or otherwise assuming overt heterosexuality: 17

Interestingly, this week marked the first time since the study began where a photo of a white women used in the post was replaced by a photo of a white man not used in the post to highlight the post on the Freshly Pressed page. In other words, the blogger used an image of a woman and the wordpress staff replaced it on their page with a picture of a man.

On the plus side, this week marks the first time a post about transgender, gender queer, and transmisogyny has been highlighted during the study and in all the time I can remember glancing at the Freshly Pressed page. On the negative side, that post included 4 photos of transgender or gender queer people engaged in a photographic awareness campaign, none of whom where people of color. In looking at the source material I discovered that of the 20 photos in the exhibit the author had to choose from, there was only one person of color photographed. The failing then is both with the author of the blog post who failed to mention racially disparity or choose the only pic available of a person of color to include with the group of other images chosen and the project itself. I also noted that while this post was highlighted, there were several posts, including on this blog, about a similar project specifically highlighting the dual erasure of black trans people from mainstream society and trans communities, as well as highlighting their diversity across the African Diaspora, none of which were ever featured on Freshly Pressed.

There were an unusually high number of feminist posts this week as well given their general absence on the Freshly Pressed page. One of these posts highlighted global feminism but was actually a blog for an organization that features innovative speakers and puts the videos up on its website. The post was literally the name of an international speaker and the theme of her talk accompanied by the video. There was no analysis, no prose, nothing. Given the number of posts written by marginalized people on wordpress about global feminism this seemed like an odd choice to represent the best wordpress has to offer. Another post on feminism praised a movie that was essentially a colonial fantasy in which a white woman finds herself through a vacation in India, Brazil, and other exotic erotic places, complete with hooting at brown men, spending money to “save” poor kids, etc. The point of the post: anyone who disliked this movie was a sexist hater. The final feminist post critiqued the same film and originally questioned the classism and racism involved but was followed up by a non-featured post apologizing and claiming it was really a critique of narcissism.

While we are documenting the number of posts that reference heterosexuality outright, please do not take this to mean other posts are sexuality neutral. With few exception all of the posts highlighted on wordpress are written by or read as heterosexual posts due to their lack of queer content.

As white women continue to gain in the featured section, I wonder if this is why we cannot get any traction on this issue. Like the woman who sees critiquing colonialism as a sexist endeavor, is the fact that white women often dominate the freshly pressed section preventing them from engaging in a feminism or social justice mindset that includes the rest of us? And if so, why is this an all too familiar position for a group that would largely define themselves as socially engaged and inclusive? It should be noted that many of the people making decisions about features on wordpress are also white women who considered themselves social justice folks.

WordPress Criteria

  • grammatical errors: 11
  • copyright: 41

This category counts the items wordpress says will preclude you from being featured. Interestingly, this week wordpress published another post referencing the importance of copyright on images used on blogs at the same time that the number of copyright infringement based on freshly pressed images was at its highest.

This week also saw the largest number of blogs featured that had been featured before and/or were not actually blogs (company “blog” pages that simply pointed people back to the company and magazines that are hosted on wordpress.org) instead of looking at diverse authors who had not been highlighted prior. The number of professional journalists and photographers is also much higher in general on the freshly pressed page than people who blog as bloggers. Given the gender, race, sexuality, etc. disparities in print media, you can see how this would translate to similar disparities on the freshly pressed page.

Scott Pilgrim Vs My Sanity (spoilers)

According to Hit Fix one of the reasons Scott Pilgrim did poorly in the box office this weekend was because people were having trouble determining the plot. I never read the graphic novels upon which the film was based, so I think it is pretty fair to say I only had the trailers to go on myself. It seemed fairly obvious to me that Scott Pilgrim was based on a particular genre of graphic novel addressing disaffected youth, counter-culture, and the pursuit of women and/or girls. I’m not sure how you could watch the trailer and not know that.

Just in case:

the plot of Scott Pilgrim vs the World

Scott Pilgrim is a 22 year old slacker bassist in an unsigned band who thinks he has met the love of his life, hipster Ramona Flowers. In order to date her drama free, he must fight her 7 evil exes all of whom have magical or video game like powers. The bulk of the film takes place at video game speed, with power ups, point values, and information bubbles. Visually it is a cross between the arcade games of 70s childhoods and modern day play station lives. The whole thing is also set to music capitalizing on the popularity of guitar hero and indie rock cred to reaffirm its geek + hipster sensibility.

The Good

Scott Pilgrim vs The World/Universal Studios/2010

The script is full of snappy one liners that in lesser hands would come off as pathetic caricature. Fortunately, from the smallest roles to the largest ones, almost every actor in Pilgrim has the necessary comedic timing and snark to pull it off. Both Alison Pill and Kieran Culkin serve up the best performances in the film, helping keep the pace of Pilgrim moving and entertaining when it could just have easily insulted and fallen flat. Johnny Simmons is brilliant as Young Neal managing to delight in every scene he is in despite having few lines. The only people who don’t seem to elevate this film to similar teen-period-piece classics are  Bree Larson, whose comedic timing on US of Tara is always a joy to watch but here seems like she’s been directed to overact to avoid dealing with real female emotions, and Satya Bhabha whose role suffers from offensive stereotype too much for him to do much with it. But we’ll get to that … wait for it …

The music is both entertaining and sometimes really good in this film. Despite failing at the acting end of her role, Bree Larson on stage is a real treat and the song is one of the best in the film. All of the actors take their dual roles as grunge heroes seriously. When they are on stage their parodies play like the real thing. The least effective of these moments is the Asian dragon sequence, but we will get to that … wait for it …

The romantic moments in this film are both visually and emotionally compelling. Scott takes Ramona’s hand in the snow the shot captures the individual snow flakes and the open heart shape of their arms to the soft background music that would make any girl’s heart go pitter-pat. When they walk together in the x in the snow, the shot not only calls up the plot of the film (evil exes) but also speaks to the crossroad both of them have or will meet in the film. These scenes have all the magic of any romance and yet are couched in enough hipster quipping to keep it from making its core audience wonder what they got suckered into. For instance, in the scene where they sit on the swings in Toronto winter, Flowers in nothing but wool tights, mini, light jacket, and fingerless gloves, they both remark how ridiculous it is that they are outside trying to be romantic in freezing cold temperatures; then, they go inside. Take that Hollywood!

b. o’malley/bigshinyrobot.com

Ramona also makes a nice alternative to the leading women that dominate mainstream romantic comedies. While her disaffected attitude toward both the world and Scott has critics stumped, this seemed no more or less disengaged to me than any other hipster film. Ramona could just as easily be Juno or Nora from Nick and Nora, both of which critics loved. More interesting to me was the fact that she has a healthy body. While she is far a cry from a “plus size” model, she has ample hips and undefined arms; in other words, she’s normal. When Ramona takes her clothes off, the camera does not shy away from angles that will make her hips larger or her chest flatter, and no CGI turns her into Laura Croft eye candy either. As much derision as I have for hipster culture, one thing I have always appreciated is that there is room for women of all shapes and sizes in their films, you know as long as they are young, mostly white, and able-bodied … but will get to that … wait for it …

Finally, unlike any number of mainstream and alternative films, this is one of the first studio movies aimed at summer audience with prominent queer characters. Scott lives with his gay best friend Wallace, played by Kieran Culkin. Wallace is hilarious as the non-stereotypical wise-cracking best friend who just wants to live his slacker life and get laid like everyone else. Unlike the chirping snarkfest gay bestfriends of stereotype land, Wallace is compassionate when needed, horny in believable and non-pathologized ways, always has Scott’s back even when that means calling him out sans a single “girlfriend”, and rather than snark he peddles in a fair amount of cynicism that offers the only real moral compass of the film. While his ever increasing sex partners are a consistent joke in the film, this too is depicted in a way that runs against the grain of the hypersexed gay man or the tragically grateful coming out story that dominate queer young adult films these days. And truthfully, I like that he gets laid without much fanfare, struggle, or questioning but instead is just another guy living his life.

Scott Pilgrim vs The World/Universal Studios/2010

Ramona is also not completely straight. Throughout the film, Scott displays typical heterosexism as he works out how exactly he ended up having to fight Ramona’s 7 exes. Every time he says, “7 ex-boyfriends”, Ramona corrects him with “7 exes”. It starts out as a subtle reminder about how heterosexism works and how people with gay bestfriend’s can still be guilty of it. This subtlety-turned-unnecessary-repetition is followed up with Scott finally cluing in with a scene that reaffirms the way the film naturalizes all sexualities; when Ramona says she was going through “a phase”, Scott replies “what a sexy phase?”. While in some ways that rejoinder reaffirms a heterosexist gaze at lesbian sexuality, ie for the entertainment of straight men, it also refuses to judge or pathologize Ramona’s chocies. And while it is not the most questioning -affirming comment in the world, I loved it when Romana’s ex responds to their love affair being called “a phase” by calling her a “has-bien”, we used to call it L.U.G. (lesbian until graduation) in my day. And I don’t think this film used the term to demean bisexuals, which I assume is how it is used in the real world. Instead, the comment markedly calls out women who deny or disavow parts of their sexuality with little regard for the women they ab/use in the process. To me saying a real relationship was “a phase” with all the implied judgment in your tone in front of your ex is a far cry from being confused about what you like or being bisexual and deciding to commit to a man. Ramona is guilty of the former.

Truthfully, as a person who teaches film, if the movie had not failed so horribly in other places I would be comparing it to Fast Times or Singles, for its ability to capture a particular cultural moment in youth culture that people can identify with now and look back on fondly later when, like those other moments, youth culture has moved on,

The Bad

This movie is choppy. It very seldom lets a scene play out all the way through and has even less transition scenes. While this fits with the overall goal of the film to be like a video game, it leads to some scene splicing that pulls you out of the film and makes you wonder about technique rather than story line; visionary work can use new techniques while telling a story.

The same thing happens with excessive use of pop ups. While most of them are in keeping with the film’s overall feel, sometimes they seem like an unecessary device reminiscent of the decline of Pop Up Video on VH1 than innovation. In at least one scene there are so many of pop ups you don’t have time to read them all. Alternatively, the film uses black marks to cover up cursing to hilarious effect.

Ultimately, the problems seems more about too much and timing than technique. While Director Edgar Wright had an amazing grasp on cinematography and story, his love of his concept gets in the way. Some times I think he does not trust himself with the meatier parts of the story (of which there are few) so he dumps in some graphics instead. This is particularly true when he is dealing with the love story that supposedly drives the film and is unfortunate because he clearly has the chops to make the story line sing.

Scott Pilgrim vs The World/Universal Studios/2010

Most of the characters in this film are two-dimensional. Some characters are introduced and then never seen again. Others are given significant enough attention or back story that we want to know about them but they are simply plot devices that appear and disappear in the night. This is particularly problematic with regards to Scott’s ex-girlfriend who is supposed to motivate all his douchebaggery. Of course, the film isn’t invested in female characters … But we’ll get to that … Wait for it.

For the vegan viewers, this film will also enrage. One of Ramona’s evil exes is a vegan who as a result of not eating animal products has magical powers and the condescension to match. For me, his ridiculous banter and ultimate dethroning were deeply satisfying as a critique against self-righteous vegans who act as though they are better than everyone else. Example: PETA’s beached whale campaign that incited an endless barrage of fatphobia and hatred toward large people as non-vegan or self-appointed voices of the vegan movement on the internet who transform multiple conversations about racism, classism, and other oppressions preventing veganism from reaching certain people or changing world systems that impact animals into myopic rants about how everyone who disagrees with them “eats meat” and “hates vegans”. This kind of pseudo-sainthood that targets others and refuses to address one’s own oppressive behaviors makes vegans an easy target and the film is spot on in its depiction of the sanctimonious set within a much larger social justice movement.

At the same time, there is no room in this film for vegans who actually are neither elitest nor judgmental. There is no real vegan in this film. The evil ex, it seems eats chicken occasionally. Even if he did not, there is no other vegan in the film who is sane, committed to social justice, and just trying to live their life in the best way possible. For those vegans this image is a huge slap in the face. It smarts even harder no doubt because in the graphic novel the character is actually a drummer with a bionic arm not a vegan at all … but wait for it …

The Ugly

The article I linked to at the top of this post, has a whole list of reasons Scott Pilgrim did not do well at the box office. None of these include that the film is offensive and thus fails to entertain at a deeper level. However, I would argue that it is the depiction of women and APIs that is at the heart of its failure.

Scott Pilgrim vs The World/Universal Studios/2010

Scott Pilgrim begins with a backstory about Scott being on the rebound with a high school girl. He is 22 and she is 17. To get around both legality and the potential morality issues involved in this hook up, the film spends a considerable amount of time pointing out that they do not kiss nor have sex. I know I am Catholic, and so is Knives Chau, the girlfriend, but seriously … Worse than these age differences is the way Scott treats her. Not only does he forget about her regularly, he misses dates, picking her up, and even jumps out of a window to avoid her. (The window scene is hilarious out of context but fails to read the level of the panty scene in the Breakfast Club precisely because the film never takes its female characters seriously and its characters of color even less so.) Worse, he also cheats on her without even thinking about it; the majority of the film depicts his heartless cheating as the great love story for us to invest in with little regard to Knives either. It is one thing if your hero is a douchebag, it’s another if your storyline elevates it to romance.

While Knives is doting on his every word, Scott is trying to get Ramona to pay attention to him. He orders a useless gadget to get her to deliver it after he finds out that is her job. He slides up to her at a party and tries to be witty using the same pick up line he used on Knives a few scenes before. He even goes to bed with her, though they end up not having sex because Ramona changes her mind at the last minute, while still dating Knives. In fact, he is so insensitive that he invites Ramona to the same concert Knives has promised to come see without breaking up with her. When they start to confront him, he simply runs away and does his best to keep them from talking. Only Wallace tells him he is cruel and needs to man up and even then, his answer is to try to avoid it and then simply tell her as she is going on about how wonderful they are, that it is over.

In a scene that should make every girl’s skin crawl, Scott rides home on the train looking pathetic because he had to break up with his girlfriend and that made him feel bad. Poor Scott. And then, his pathetic shell-shocked expression twists into a giddy grin as Ramona’s face pops into his head. His 5 seconds of guilt don’t even amount to remorse since they are really about how much it sucked for him to have to look at Knives teary eyes than about how how he treated her, demeaned her, and took her for granted. Did I mention he makes her pay for their dates?

In typical male fantasy fashion, we are supposed to excuse Scott’s treatment of Knives for three reasons: (1) Ramona is his true love, so of course he pursued her. Except, Scott was a self-absorbed user before Ramona came into the picture. (2) Knives is better than Scott, Wallace tells us so and so does Knives herself so that makes all his neglect and douchebaggery ok. And (3) After stalking him throughout the rest of the film, Knives herself gives him permission to go after Ramona even though he was perfectly willing to take her back as a consolation prize at the end of the movie. You know because Ramona said she was leaving and Knives still has an allowance to buy video games and pizza with on their dates. (Supposedly he learns a lesson in this movie, there is even dialogue saying “I think I am learning something” except the fact he is willing to reunite with Knives when he does not love her undermines the entire thing.)

What is most offensive about the Knives storyline to me is that it does not need to be there. Knives serves no purpose in this movie except as a vehicle for Scott and his friend’s racism and/or sexism… wait for it … and his overwhelming self-absorption. Including Knives seems like a huge mistake for a film that tries so desperately to convince us that Scott is a good guy. In case your smart enough to know better, the movie has Ramona says it over and over again. In this way, I agree with many of the mainstream reviewers who said one of the big failings of this movie is that the main character is not particularly likable or interesting.

Scott Pilgrim vs The World/Universal Studios/2010

The premise of the movie is also basically sexist when you get right down to it. In order for Scott to be with Ramona he has to fight for her with a bunch of beefed out men, and one puckish girl, who barely care that Ramona is there. In fact, it turns out that none of them are fighting for Ramona but instead to get her back for the only guy in this movie who is more narcissistic and sexist than Scott himself. Haven’t we gotten past the woman as property or prize days yet?

Worse, it turns out Ramona’s motivation is that she is only using Scott to get her ex to pay attention to her. Seems like Scott and his rival have a lot in common whe it comes to how they treat women and Ramona’s quite the catch with her lust for self-absorbed people who barely care about her.

Despite supposedly being empowered, Ramona does nothing to defend herself or put a stop to the conflict, except when Scott refuses to “hit a girl”. He can use them and ignore them but hitting is where Scott draws the line; I wish the director felt the same.

Hitting girls is pretty common place in this film. Mr. Vegan punches Knives with such force that he “knocks out her highlights”. While the refrain about her highlights being gone is meant to make us laugh, there is nothing amusing about seeing the former Superman punch a 4 foot something teenage girl in the jaw. And there is even less amusing about the fact that neither Scott nor her new boyfriend do anything about it until he insinuates his sexual domination over the two white women in the room. The white women don’t care either by the way, one even seems turned on by it. Worst of all, this fight takes place between two women in the graphic novel, meaning the director decided it would be “funnier” to have a huge, muscle bound, male actor punch a thin teenage girl than follow the existing story line; it’s a “joke” he resorts to too often and it also speaks to the fact that while he does not mind changing the pre-existing story to heighten iniquity, he has no qualms with leaving it alone when the inequity is already there.

B. O’Malley

Which gets us back to the other major issue in this film: race. The way Scott treats Knives is bad enough on its own. But as he discusses her with his friends and family, he makes sure to mention that she is Asian. Many of their reactions point to the exotic erotic. Just in case we are too dumb to pick up on the unspoken orientalism, Scott spells it out for his sister when he points out that she is both Asian and has a Catholic School uniform …

Throughout the film her race is used to casually express racism. Besides the multiple conversations referenced above, when Scott wants to break up with her he asks if she is “even allowed to date outside her race” as if his eroticization of her is acceptable but her parents’ potential fears about that eroticization are discrimination. At the end of the film, she shows up dressed like a hipster version of a ninja. And when she gives Scott permission to go after Ramona, he says “Chow Knives” you know, cause her name is Knives Chau …

The other Asians in this film fair little better. Ramona’s first ex is Indian and is forced to do an obligatory Bollywood dance with ghost-vamps in the middle of their fight scene. It’s the kind of thing that made me question what exactly does go on behind the doors of 20-something hipsters’ homes when they’ve locked all the people of color out. When Ramona explains their relationship, she says “he was the only non-white jock in the town.” So she did not date him because she liked him; she dated him because he fit into her rebellion against hypermasculinized whiteness that left her no room for female autonomy. In this way, she has something in common with Scott in that she dated a person of color to give her friends and neighbors something to talk about but otherwise could care less about them as people or lovers. She also has something in common with Julie Roberts’ new movie, in as much as her supposed act of feminist enlightenment was bought on the back of brown men. Yippee!

Ramona also dated Asian twins. Their sole contribution to this film is a synthesizer that shoots out Chinese dragons. If that weren’t bad enough, let me just point out that the twins last name is not Chinese, it’s Japanese.

Conclusions

Scott Pilgrim vs The World/Universal Studios/2010

I walked into Scott Pilgrim with the last shred of hope I had left for the summer movie season. I was expecting a sort of graphic novel angst that both entertained and sent up the original in unique ways. While the graphics and the overall gifted cinematic eye were certainly present in much of this film, its tongue-in-cheek hipster angst fell flat in the face of so much unnecessary racism and sexism. The film’s race politics seem to be  a fairly faithful adaptation of the graphic novel which means both the racism and some of the sexism originated there and the directors and writers made the decision not to omit it in the re-telling for film. What concerns me most about Scott Pilgrim then is that it is not new in its peddling of either oppression; instead, it seems like a sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, sometimes visually compelling version of the same old 20-something shlock. While hipsters pat themselves on the back for being completely disaffected with all the evil in our world, able to cut through the bullshit, and take on any number of liberal causes it seems like in their fantasies, and for many in their real lives, the oppressions that do not impact them directly do not matter to them any more than the fascists and neocons they define themselves against.

I understand why young men would be attracted to this film. Michael Cera as average Joe is always compelling and his fight scenes, done mostly himself, and endless supply of women makes him the perfect nerd hero whether playing Scott Pilgrim or the myriad of other versions of this character elsewhere. However, it is hard to know why white women, and a handful of women of color, buy into this culture that does not take them anymore seriously than the sexist society they rally against. While mainstream culture is both blatant and unapologetic about its exploitation and objectification of young women, hipsters do pay lip-service to their empowerment and does so in this film as well. But if all feminism means these days is you get to be as big a douche as the pompous boy ignoring you and you get to have everyone around you acknowledge that you are smarter and cooler even while they do nothing to change their interpersonal worlds to make room for you as anything other than the ignored girlfriend, hated interloper, or object of racialized sexual fantasy, than give me a new movement. And please spare me the transparent cinematic reinforcement that elevates average Joe at Jane’s expense.

Overall Scott Pilgrim gets a C for Crap.

The Real L World but Not the Real L A

post still in progress – images added tonight

Let me start by saying I watched the entire run of the L World on Showtime, wrote essays about both its import and its failings, and teach it in my popular media course. Despite the many things I enjoyed about the show, from both an academic and viewer standpoint, the promises Chaiken made to be a multicultural show written from the perspective of biracial lesbians and lesbians of color, as well as white lesbians seldom panned out in the ways she promised. So I admit it, I was cynical about the racial politics of the “reality” show version of the L Word from the minute I heard it was in the proposal stage.

Like many of you, I watched 6 seasons of the L Word where overall the characters and storylines were compelling but black women, butch women and trans men (the latter of which were often collapsed into a single category) were largely absent and/or almost always depicted in profoundly offensive ways: Kit starts out as a drunk and bad mother whose parents and children hate her. Though she improves over the series she is also the outspoken gender and transphobe whose only white counterpart is the always inappropriate Jenny. As the only consistent black female presence on the show, she also acts as a subtle reinforcement of the idea that black people are more homophobic than white people (the visibly white, tho multiculti cast is all lesbian, the visibly black woman is straight with offensive gender politics) even as she subverts this idea by being openly supportive of not only her sister but the entire community. Yolanda, the only black woman in Bette’s lamaze class, is perpetually angry and constantly attacking Bette for passing. The audience is invited to judge her anger and be repulsed by her politics and beliefs even in the one scene where she is not yelling or on the verge of yelling. More than that, this first season encounter establishes the narrative of whiteness that often undermined attempts at diversity on the show, ie that if you can pass for white, live a life in which you are largely or completely treated as white, then you should and so should the show. As Better put it in response to Yolanda’s accusation that she had failed to embrace her entire cultural heritage and become white, “why shouldn’t I?” And her list of all the privileges and advantages that passing affords her are stated without irony nor complexity as if to further affirm the politics of privilege. The only offset to this mantra is that Bette makes an effort to have a biracial baby with her white partner and that her search is intentionally juxtaposed with her decries about the rightness and goodness of whiteness or lightness.

Latinas faired slightly better in the L Word partially because Papi, who was the quintessential “hot tamale” stereotype, was brought in for a plot twist and then quickly edited back out. Yet like Chaiken’s promises of multiculturalism in the promos for the first season of the show, quite a bit of media buzz surrounded Papi’s entrance into the L Word as a Latina lesbian character. Promotion promised us a character that had largely been missing from the show, what they delivered was a character who helped white lesbian Alice get her groove back and then was largely missing from the show.

At the same time the L Word did give us more interesting secondary characters of color. Candace Jewell, Bette”s fling, though tight-lipped was decidedly not a Saphire character, instead she offered us one of the only positive depictions of working class, [soft] butch identity on the show. She was intelligent, passionate, and hard working. Though some of have criticized the character for the jail house love scene which for them tapped into certain stereotypes of blackness. Tasha also went a long way in fixing some of the earlier missteps of the show with regards to gender politics and class identity. While her character was also more fleshed out than others, it still tapped into certain, more subtle stereotypes, about black women as angry, aloof, and conservative (vis-a-vis white liberal feminists). Carmen, as femme, also complicated an alarming equation of butchness and working classness or hickness that seemed to permeate the show, especially when Moira arrived before transition but also with Kelly. She was perhaps the most well-rounded and integrated character of color in the series. She was tied to a main character so that she was hard to marginalize and the scenes involving her family dealt with both Latinos who are opposed to homosexuality and those who embrace it in ways that avoided stereotypes about people of color and homophobia. At the same time neither of the Latina characters were played by Latina actresses bring the sum total of prominent Latinas employed by the L Word to ZERO. The absence of Asian women, which can only be countered by the casting of South Asian women to play Latinas, was also glaring in a show set in LA.

Given the racial and gender politics of the fictional version, I doubted the unreality of the proposed reality show would veer much further from Chaiken’s seeming preference for feminine, white or light characters; the previews for the Real L Word seemed to confirm my suspicions. There are no black women on the Real L Word and the emphasis on upper class identity in the show seems to imply that black women are poor and therefore not running in the same circles as these “top 10% ” lesbians (to borrow one cast member’s self-description). While I doubt the class-race connections were intentional, the failure to provide wide shots during Rose’s class discussion which would have shown an array of visibly brown and black women leaves the viewer with a particular message even as Rose’s own presence complicates it. More than that, the tight shots in these first scenes may have been an issue of consent and production but also serve to further erase darker women of color from even the background of the show.

Both Latinas in the Real L Word are white by Latina standards and at least one can likely pass by U.S. ones. In fact, I did not know she was Latina until she makes a Spanish language phone call to her mother in an anglicized accent. Interestingly, Rose, the more outspoken of the two could not pass.

At the same time, Chaiken has made an effort to include both butch women and her oh-so-light woc lesbians as equals in the show. Two of the main characters are women who self-identify as not feeling comfortable in a dress. One makes sure to tell us she is “a top” (though her make up artist girlfriend promptly says otherwise) and the other one says “There are heels and boots” and she is definitely “boots”.  A lot of time is spent on Miss Boots storyline in the first episode, so perhaps the producers are discovering something we already knew, ie women of all gender presentations are interesting not just us girlie girls.

The show also spends a considerable amount of time with both Latinas. Unlike the Papi character, Rose’s loud-mouthed womanizing is offset by her time with her family, discussions of growing older and getting out of bad relationships, and her negotiations with her live-in partner who I think is also Latina. Thus, she is transformed from a stereotypical version of Latina womanhood into a well-rounded character who likes to party. Since this is reality tv and bad girls sell, Chaiken’s decision to depict Rose’s complexity is particularly important and a key sign of the growth in racial representations begun in the later seasons of the L Word. Rose’s time with her family is also a critical counterpoint to Tracy’s conversation with and about her mother. While Rose has a supportive family who actively discusses her love life, Tracy’s mother has simply refused to address it and Tracy has had to make the difficult and familiar choice of cutting her emotional-sexual life out of her relationship with her parents. Again the two women’s experiences give us a much wider view of Latina women than we might otherwise get from someone invested in uncomplicated racial stereotypes and sensationalist tv.

Ultimately, I found the first episode of the Real L Word compelling. Not only does it expand the discourse of gender and race beyond that of the fictional show but it offers us a wide range of interesting characters with recognizable issues and lives. It humanizes the experience of lesbians across the lifecycle and thus offers another opportunity for people to see the gay community as normal or to see a snippet of themselves reflected on tv. However, that snippet continues to erase black and Asian women and to privilege a preference for lipstick whiteness and/or lightness that makes me wish Chaiken would deal with her own biracial issues and come into her racial own (instead of emulating Bette’s “why shouldn’t I [pass for white]“). As one biracial girl to another, I can tell her that life is much better on the other side of racial confusion and fear of blackness (all though I cannot say I ever shared those two issues with her). So I will keep watching the Real L Word while rooting for Chaiken to live up to some of the promises she has made over the years and let go of some of the baggage she has defended. And truthfully, the show is interesting, often compelling, and literally hard to turn away from even in the midst of the worst dyke drama.

What did you all think?

What Are They Teaching Those Kids?

In the interest of full disclosure, I need to tell you that I was once recruited by Harvard as an undergraduate. Based on my SAT scores and GPA, they promised me early admission and a full tuition waiver as long as my application materials were in order. As I was considering their offer, I received several materials from Harvard which included information about housing discrimination that encouraged me to live far away from the Harvard area and take public transit into school and campus climate information that actually made me concerned for my safety as a student and as a person moving on and off campus regularly. That material was actually the deciding factor in my decision to go to a less recognized top 10 school where the funding was less inclusive but the community was much more so.

These events occurred before many of my non-faculty college readers were born and certainly before the “formative educational years” of the student in question below. So imagine my lack of surprise when I ventured over to PostBourgie blog and saw an article about a 3rd year, white, female, Harvard Law student who argued that black people’s genetic encoding may make them less intelligent than white people and that she was then defended by members of the Harvard community.

Stephanie Grace/unattributed

While I have pasted Stephanie Grace’s controversial letter below for your perusal, for me, the more interesting aspect of this case is the opinion poll about whether or not she was in fact being racist which I discuss further down in the post.

… I just hate leaving things where I feel I misstated my position.

I absolutely do not rule out the possibility that African Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent. I could also obviously be convinced that by controlling for the right variables, we would see that they are, in fact, as intelligent as white people under the same circumstances. The fact is, some things are genetic. African Americans tend to have darker skin. Irish people are more likely to have red hair. (Now on to the more controversial:) Women tend to perform less well in math due at least in part to prenatal levels of testosterone, which also account for variations in mathematics performance within genders. This suggests to me that some part of intelligence is genetic, just like identical twins raised apart tend to have very similar IQs and just like I think my babies will be geniuses and beautiful individuals whether I raise them or give them to an orphanage in Nigeria. I don’t think it is that controversial of an opinion to say I think it is at least possible that African Americans are less intelligent on a genetic level, and I didn’t mean to shy away from that opinion at dinner.

I also don’t think that there are no cultural differences or that cultural differences are not likely the most important sources of disparate test scores (statistically, the measurable ones like income do account for some raw differences). I would just like some scientific data to disprove the genetic position, and it is often hard given difficult to quantify cultural aspects. One example (courtesy of Randall Kennedy) is that some people, based on crime statistics, might think African Americans are genetically more likely to be violent, since income and other statistics cannot close the racial gap. In the slavery era, however, the stereotype was of a docile, childlike, African American, and they were, in fact, responsible for very little violence (which was why the handful of rebellions seriously shook white people up). Obviously group wide rates of violence could not fluctuate so dramatically in ten generations if the cause was genetic, and so although there are no quantifiable data currently available to “explain” away the racial discrepancy in violent crimes, it must be some nongenetic cultural shift. Of course, there are pro-genetic counterarguments, but if we assume we can control for all variables in the given time periods, the form of the argument is compelling.

In conclusion, I think it is bad science to disagree with a conclusion in your heart, and then try (unsuccessfully, so far at least) to find data that will confirm what you want to be true. Everyone wants someone to take 100 white infants and 100 African American ones and raise them in Disney utopia and prove once and for all that we are all equal on every dimension, or at least the really important ones like intelligence. I am merely not 100% convinced that this is the case.

Please don’t pull a Larry Summers on me,
CRIMSON DNA

Stephanie’s letter was written to clarify a discussion she had with two other female Harvard Law School students in the cafeteria, all of whom are in their last year of law school.  The conversation was about affirmative action. Both Stephanie and another student in the group opposed Affirmative Action, and at least one of the three women put forward the genetic argument about intelligence as one of the reasons they opposed what they felt was affirmative action related admission of black students into places like Harvard. In other words, one can infer that a white female student at one of the top rated institutions in this country, about to complete an advanced degree in higher ed, was arguing that black people do not deserve to go to places like Harvard because they are stupid. AND black are “stupid” because they are “genetically inferior to white people.”

Both these students’ level of education and the context of their conversation are  critical here. These are not Freshman with limited access to diverse knowledge or research skills. They are people who have completed one or more undergraduate degrees, that should have provided 12 or more credits of general education (ie a breadth of basic humanities and science knowledge and diversity credits) and basic research skills and diversity education in their major. They are also on the verge of completing an advanced degree at one of the highest rat4ed education facilities in the country. Meaning, they should have above and beyond the basic research skills, theories, and data (at least legal data) to recognize outdated and statistically unsupported research like eugenicism. (For those who do not know, among the many things eugenicism argued was that racially groups are genetically different and that people of color are genetically inferior both with regards to their intelligence and capacity for civility and civic engagement; all of which, has been proven inaccurate by social science and scientific research including the genome project. Among its many discoveries, the genome project proves beyond a reasonable scientific doubt that human being are actually more genetically similar than dissimilar.)

Science aside, social norms continue to reflect eugenicist thinking. Thus, for those of us who attended high ranking colleges and universities or fill positions at them, law firms, or businesses, Stephanie and her friends’ comments about are not new. From a white supremacist perspective, people of color “unfairly” “take spots” away from white students or employees who have “earned” those spots. In other words, Affirmative Action gives unquestioningly “unqualified” people of color jobs and education that unquestioningly “qualified” white people would otherwise occupy.

Regardless of white entrenchment believes however, the majority of black students in high ranking institutions, regardless of whether they are faculty or students, represent the top 10-15% of their class while similar white students represent the top 30%. These statistics are not racially exclusive. Meaning, black students are not at the top 10% of black students but rather the top 10% of their classes, ie all students, including white ones. In the same way that white students are not at the top 30% of white students but rather of all students in their schools, including people of color. Thus the common perception that black students in the ivy league are either ignorant in general or only smarter than other black people is inaccurate.

Contrary to popular belief, Affirmative Action is also not a “black program.” The largest group benefiting from Affirmative Action is WHITE WOMEN not black people (regardless of gender). One of the largest ironies about challenges to Affirmative Action is that white women have been at the forefront of legal challenges to these programs, particularly with regards to admissions decisions, yet, they are the largest benefactors.

The failure of white female Harvard Law students to engage readily available statistical information while claiming both a right to intellectual inquiry and evidence in order to hide a racist supposition is not only racially offensive it is also poor scholarship. Rather than engaging in intellectual inquiry then these women negated it at the most basic levels in order to re-entrench themselves in racial privilege.

Yet, not only was Stephanie’s “right to intellectual inquiry” defended at Above the Law but according to their online poll (based on a review of the stats on 5/3/2010 @ 12pm):

  • 56.8% of their readers believe that no racism was involved
  • 34.4% believe there was nothing offensive about the assertion that black people are less smart than white people (including 12% who believe the statement to be true)
  • 34.4% found it “somewhat offensive”
  • 68.8% felt the comments were somewhere between correct and only slightly offensive; meaning slightly more than 30% found the comments unacceptable

Since the poll is online, it is unclear how many of the respondents are members of the Harvard community. However, one can assume that the majority of the people reading Above the Law have some relationship or knowledge of Harvard in order to know about the publication and because many of the statements in the comment section identify people as Harvard Students or alums. (Above the Law is a legal blog that covers stories about the top law schools and legal controversies in the U.S. )

Early in the conflict, Stephanie was cast as the victim. Both she and others claimed that the controversy surrounding her “innocent” questions “based on liberal politics” jeopardized her status at the school, advancement through internships, clerkships, and mentoring, and any number of other complaints as documented on multiple academic and legal message boards, blogs, and newspaper comment sections.

Some even claimed that the Black Law Student Association at Harvard was actively trying to take her internship at the 9th Circuit Court away and stirring up a maelstrom against her. These comments were recreated online (and presumably in print) by Above the Law. Yet, the BLSA denies having done anything to impact Stephanie’s internship or otherwise sanction her, and they would not have the power to do so even if they had wanted to. Such sanctions would have to come from either Harvard Law itself or from the 9th Circuit Court not an organization representing black students on campus. But in order to understand that, you would have to be thinking rationally. If, on the other hand, you process these events through the lens of white entrenchment then the fact a white student maligned the intelligence of an entire race and student organizations have no power to sanction students with regards to their academic is erased in favor of the myth that black people have unfair power in this country and wield it regularly against the aspirations of white people.

On Thursday, April 29, The Dean of Harvard Law, Martha Minow, corroborated the BLSA’s denials in an open letter to the Law School community:

Dear members of the Harvard Law School community:

I am writing this morning to address an email message in which one of our students suggested that black people are genetically inferior to white people.

This sad and unfortunate incident prompts both reflection and reassertion of important community principles and ideals. We seek to encourage freedom of expression, but freedom of speech should be accompanied by responsibility. This is a community dedicated to intellectual pursuit and social justice. The circulation of one student’s comment does not reflect the views of the school or the overwhelming majority of the members of this community.

As news of the email emerged yesterday, I met with leaders of our Black Law Students Association to discuss how to address the hurt that this has brought to this community. For BLSA, repercussions of the email have been compounded by false reports that BLSA made the email public and pressed the student’s future employer to rescind a job offer. A troubling event and its reverberations can offer an opportunity to increase awareness, and to foster dialogue and understanding. The BLSA leadership brought this view to our meeting yesterday, and I share their wish to turn this moment into one that helps us make progress in a community dedicated to fairness and justice.

Here at Harvard Law School, we are committed to preventing degradation of any individual or group, including race-based insensitivity or hostility. The particular comment in question unfortunately resonates with old and hurtful misconceptions. As an educational institution, we are especially dedicated to exposing to the light of inquiry false views about individuals or groups.

I am heartened to see the apology written by the student who authored the email, and to see her acknowledgement of the offense and hurt that the comment engendered.

I would like to thank the faculty, administrators, and students who have already undertaken serious efforts to increase our chances for mutual understanding, confrontation of falsehoods, and deliberative engagement with difficult issues, and making this an ever better community.

Sincerely,
Martha Minow

While her letter is seemingly non-committal enough that those who support Stephanie and her supporters’ assertion that she was simply engaging in intellectual inquiry can focus on the beginning of the letter to find support and those who find the lack of intellectual depth and basic research allowing for such an assertion offensive can find it in the last part of the letter, we cannot forget that Minow is both Dean and being considered for a Supreme Court nod. Her job is to protect the school’s reputation and ultimately to protect her own aspirations. At the same time, those of us who are used to writing or reading these kinds of letters can see that Minow held a meeting with black students, condemns racial disparity, and is trying to shift an increasingly tense situation toward a learning opportunity.

Another key aspect of Minow’s letter, is her reference to Stephanie’s apology for her comments. Very few articles addressing this issue have mentioned Stephanie’s apology. On the one hand, her apology at least represents some acknowledgment that she was putting forward a line of thinking that is both racially biased and unsupportable. On the other, it has become all too common to issue an apology when one gets caught saying something racist and experiences a minimum of public sanction for it; most recently, John Mayer offered one and was back to his usual self/twitter adoration in less than two weeks. In Stephanie’s case, her apology was sent not to the students whom she addressed her initial comments (who we can assume somewhat agree with them) nor to the Law School at large but rather to the BLSA. Stephanie’s comments have negatively impacted the entire law school as people question what is going on at Harvard nor were her comments directed at any specific member or leader of the BLSA. Thus directing her apology to the black student association represents 1) the narrow idea that racism only impacts black people and 2) continues the personalization of this incident so as to erase both the other people involved and the milieu that allowed to occur in the first place. Worse, her focus on intent (assuming erroneously that one has to be aware of being racist in order to commit a racist act) and her own pain at the situation (ie continuing to cast herself as partial victim in an act she committed against others, b/c she too is in pain) continue the “good person” narrative that permeates similar public apologies with limited real paradigm shifts. As such, her apology smacks of a John Mayer more than a learning curve in which she has learned anything about race and racism:

I am deeply sorry for the pain caused by my email. I never intended to cause any harm, and I am heartbroken and devastated by the harm that has ensued. I would give anything to take it back.

I emphatically do not believe that African Americans are genetically inferior in any way. I understand why my words expressing even a doubt in that regard were and are offensive.

I would be grateful to have an opportunity to share my thoughts and to apologize to you in person.

Even beforehand, I want to extend an apology to you and to anyone else who has been hurt by my actions.

Equally telling, is that her apology denies that she has ever supported the idea that black people’s genetics make them less smart than white people even though that is exactly what is implied by the letter she initially sent. Or to be more precise, the language of her original letter implies that someone else at the table, who has emerged from this controversy unscathed in the pursuit of erasing large context and milieu, put forward the idea that black people were ignorant b/c of genetic inferiority; Stephanie then decided that she was willing and able to agree with the idea that black people were intellectually inferior after thinking it over. The sad thing is, at some point in the conversation that predated the email in question, Stephanie likely argued against a genetic argument hence why she felt she needed to clarify she was open to the idea later. Again, as this story is fleshed out, I think it would be wrong to forget that this conversation involved other people, had a larger context of racist discourse, and that the pressure to align with whiteness at Harvard was enough to encourage Stephanie to change her mind in writing and to believe that doing so would not lead to any social sanction should that email surface. While that pressure seems to have shifted as national level concern has been raised about Stephanie’s comments, we cannot forget that the internal pressures Stephanie felt were decidedly in a different direction. Nor is the national level concern and the Dean’s own statements about inclusively supported by the poll cited in this post which shows the majority of respondents overwhelmingly unconcerned about the racism of the comments Stephanie made or the conversation as a whole. Moreover, Stephanie and her pro-genetic argument colleagues involved in this conversation are not first year undergraduates with limited access to knowledge about diversity and/or basic research skills, they are third year graduate students in a Law School with considerable knowledge about how to do research.

As far as I know, despite the victim stance of Stephanie’s supporters, Stephanie retains her lucrative admission to Harvard and all of the intellectual, social and economic capital it represents and her clerkship with the 9th Circuit Court and access to all of the doors of power such a clerkship will ultimately open for her. Her fellow students, involved in the conversation against Affirmative Action, have escaped without critique or seemingly-socially-forced apology. While no one should question their right to stay in school based on their comments, I do think we have to question their internships as well as their overall contribution to the law. After all, their thoughts about black people’s intelligence, genetics, and right to higher education certainly raise concerns about what they will contribute to an already biased legal system. Their commitment to a genetics argument about racial intelligence, certainly casts doubts about why they have been given opportunities, like interning at the 9th Circuit, over other students with a wider breadth of knowledge and a deeper capacity for basic research.

The irony in this debacle is of course that were Stephanie and her friends reading a story about a black Harvard student who engaged in a line of questioning that could easily be addressed by looking at secondary data and reading around the subject, they would likely use it as proof that Affirmative Action, and not qualification, had gotten that student admission to Harvard. Given what we know about the largest group benefiting from Affirmative Action in the U.S., it’s hard not to throw Stephanie and her friends’ thinking right back at their feet.

Dr. Who Take II: The Beast Below (A Super Quickie – Spoilers)

BBC 2010

For those who thought I was exaggerating about some of my long time Dr. Who fan companions who said they would not watch after last week’s episode, I am sad to report, I watched this week’s episode alone. That’s right, they were that turned off by last week. I, on the other hand, am semi-glad I watched again this week, because many of the things that turned me off last week were absent from this episode. As I predicted, the show’s “new” creative team knows a considerable amount about the genre and the reboot and really can give us something good if they try. That said, this episode’s plot was still re-tweaked re-hash from the last 5 years and worse, the Doctor comes across as morally reprehensible. Here’s the breakdown:

Plot:

Dr. Who and Amy Pond arrive on a ship with a mysterious and seemingly dangerous creature at the heart of the ship that the inhabitants mostly do not know about.

Sound familiar? It should. Remember when David Tennant arrived on the space ship with the alien that was eating people while they walked around in a daze? Moffat’s only new contribution to the rehash is to shift the alien’s motivation.

BBC 2010

They are also policed by creatures called The Smilers, who also seem like a mix of other villains from both Torchwood and Dr. Who past. I think they are supposed to be scary, but truthfully, how many times can we see statues move, change expression, or otherwise come to life before we point to every statue on the show and think “I bet that is an evil alien or at least made by one!”? Worse, the Smilers have me thinking of a particularly famous Buffy episode … I’m just sayin’, Whedon does it better by a mile.

(And while I am being nitpicky, didn’t the queen’s guard look like he had been shopping in Obi-Wan’s closet? But that I hope was a nod to scifi geekdom more than ripoff.)

Gender:

This episode gives us two adult female characters and one little girl, all of whom are central to the plot. The little girl is mostly absent from the episode, except as the motivation for the Doctor’s arrival and for the final plot twist. She acts as an archetype, damsel in distress, spelled out for us on more than one occasion because they writers are not content to just give us a stereotype, they have to make sure we know it is one.

The other two women, Pond and Liz 10, are strong, intelligent, self-sufficient, and essential to the plot. While Pond, fully clothed this time out, offers the heart of the show this episode, Liz 10 is all action. When the Doctor can’t seem to rescue himself or Pond from the mouth of the ship, Liz 10 comes to the rescue doing her best impression of a caped crusader meets a Martha Jones – Gwen Cooper hybrid. Both female roles are much more solid, much less stereotypical, and far more respectful overall than last week.

BBC 2010

Race:

Liz 10 is Afro-British and also the Queen of England. On the one hand, there isn’t much to say about race in this episode except for the “surprise” shift in the image of The Crown. On the other, Liz 10′s leadership oscillates amongst seemingly duped monarch, under cover spy, and morally reprehensible torturer. She is almost always clueless about her own rule, her own age, her own cabinet, etc. And while I liked her personality, I cannot decide whether her cluelessness and culpability are a comment on the promise of hope and change versus the realities of status quo or something all together more insiduous.

I feel the same ambivalence toward the white porcelain mask she wears when doing her sluething; when she is the duped Queen, she appears in her own smiling face, but when she thinks they are not looking, she dons a white mask and roams the ship. Again, the meanings are likely multiple, with both astute comment on the meaning of the British subject and problematic equations of good and evil with racial stereotype.

A similar shift happens with one of her guards who is Afro-British when he walks in and asks her to do something and then his head spins into an angry smiler when she refuses; smilers are white. The seeming reversal of race-moral character is incomplete since both versions of the guard want her to do something she does not want to do and both are in on the torture.

There is something there in the messages about race, but they are so subtle as to be innocuous. Honestly, I think we’ll have to wait for more episodes before I can really weigh in on race issues. (I have already mentioned some of the positive shifts in ethnicity issues on the show in the previous review)

Matt Smith as Dr. Who:

The good news is that Smith has already moved away from his bad Tennant impression. This means that the yelling, strutting about, and general mania are all gone from his performance. While I find his interpretation of Tennant insulting, the fact is I’m glad most of the truly annoying parts of his inaugural performance was him trying to be David and not the way he was approaching the role for good. Smith did an outstanding job of showing the more serious side of the Doctor this time out as well. His range of emotions was spot on for what his character goes through in this episode and he revealed an angry streak that could lead to some fascinating episodes in the future.

That said, the jerky movements, cocky stride, and condescension of last week seem to be core elements of Smith’s Doctor. Some of these things, like the jerky movements, are off-putting, others are a matter of taste. There have been cocky Doctors before and I have liked many of them … and, yet there is something about Smith that still does not sit right for me. All I can say is that I’ll probably like him well enough in a year or two, but I think the condescension coupled with the morally challenged nature of this doctor are really pushing the bounds of what we have all come to love about Dr. Who.

Moffat’s Doctor (or specism):

Moffat continues to flatten out the wonderful complexity of the main character or at least allow the writers and actor to do so. This episode was particularly egregious in the sense that the Doctor was willing to murder the last of a majestic species to save a few 1000 British people who were either directly involved in or complicit in the torture of an animal for 100s of years for their own benefit. Worse, he made the choice to side with abusers while being indignant about the abuse.

While, thanks to Amy, the episode ends on the moral high ground, the Doctor’s decision left him morally reprehensible in my eyes. Dr. Who has killed many creatures in his time but most of those creatures were guilty of torture, abuse, domination, or simply snacking on humans because the could. To kill a majestic creature who had been aiding the survival of the human race so that a handful of British subjects could continue to live docile lives in space is offensive at best. When one factors in that the origin story, in which the British did not move fast enough to save their own country nor take time out to determine what the creature wanted when it originally appeared, and the fact that 100s of years have passed since the torture began without a single person in power trying to figure out an alternative way to power and navigate a space ship (something everyone else in the universe manages to do just fine), the Doctor’s choice to save the humans over the space whale is incomprehensibly wrong.

We’ve just spent 4 years watching the Doctor confront the demons of being a Time Lord. From the very beginning of the reboot, we are told he is the last Time Lord because of a war that ended his race and that war has left huge scars. As the years have moved forward, the Doctor has sworn over and over again that he will not commit nor participate in genocide, and he has only gone back on his word when to do so meant preventing the genocide of another species. The space whale has killed no one, threatened no one, and does not have the ability to commit genocide, and yet Mofatt’s Doctor Who would kill the whale to save the human beings who trapped and tortured it for 100s of years, for no other reason than he likes human beings.

Gone is the Doctor who questioned his emotional and physical impact on companions, worlds, even time. In his place, a cavalier and self-righteous #11 who brazenly calls back fleeing aliens who threatened the earth just to chastise them up close and decides to kill the last of a majestic race just to save a handful of humans who tortured it shamelessly for 100s of years. Who is this man and where is his moral compass?

Final Verdict:

The look and feel of the show is still recognizable Dr. Who magic. For those who do not recognize or care about the unabashed rehashes every week, the storylines are obviously in keeping with what we have come to expect. And while there are things that still remain disconcerting, the leap from episode 1 to 2 this season has been large enough to quell my fears. I’m still watching, and if you are, please feel free to weigh in.

4 Things You Can Do to Restore Civil Rights in AZ

By now, we have all heard about SB 1070, the latest maneuver by State Government and/or Legislature in Arizona to target Latin@s living in the state. This past year alone, such efforts have included the second attempt to remove key Chican@ history from high schools in a law that would have made it possible to do away with all multicultural, women’s, and/or gender and sexuality history from schools, employment review of some high profile Chican@ advocates working for the state and/or intimidation of state employees questioning discriminatory policing and other government practices,  and the ongoing efforts of Sheriff Joe Arpaio to criminalize Latin@s at the expense of other, needed, community policing. Immigrant rights advocates and civil rights advocates banned together to draw attention to the impact of Sheriff Joe on both race and gender relations in Arizona, citing the absence of follow through on rape cases in order to patrol the border, the increase in petty crime and theft with a weapon, in his district without much response or with response times that have grown every year, making it impossible to catch criminals, and the use of chain gangs and tent prisons in 100+ degree weather, and the rise in racial profiling that was literally targeting all Chican@s in the area and occasionally resulting in young children, N. American citizens, being left on the side of the road, when their parents were carted away and permanently traumatized regardless of whether they had other care providers available. These actions, have already led to Arizona becoming a place where predators who target children, women, and isolated businesses and families thrive because they know that little, if any, energy is being put into investigating their crimes. According to some advocates, rape evidence has been allowed to degrade while Sheriff Joe and his deputies do random searches of families out for a drive. The racial divides in AZ have gotten so bad, that local radio stations actively encourage racist sexism and sexualized violence against Latin@ advocates like Isabel Garcia without much apology and whole communities have been repeatedly pamphleted by supremacist organizations.

Yesterday, despite widespread criticism from both local and national communities, including the President of the United States, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed SB 2010 into law. The bill gives AZ police the right to stop anyone suspected of being undocumented with Arizona borders. The law erodes recent Federal attempts to reign in Sheriff Joe’s racial profiling and seemingly discriminatory policing practices and streamline border patrol efforts. These attempts were not, as some have argued, an attempt to ignore or give a free pass to undocumented people, but rather to draw a permanent line between immigration reform and white supremacy in which the latter was no longer welcome. Finally, the law increases militarization at the border, both in terms of increases in advanced technology at the border and the number of armed border patrol officers and “aids” stationed there, including members of the national guard when/if necessary.

The impact of signing the law far outreaches the legal expansion of discrimination in the state. By signing the bill under scrutiny from the President, Governor Brewer joins a growing trend of conservative Governors and Mayors who have publicly questioned the fundamental powers of the Union in which we live and declared the autonomy of their states in the face of Federal guidelines they have cast as racially insensitive, unequal, or dangerous to white people. These efforts include, casting the health care bill as anti-white or biased toward black people, in an era in which white people are losing their homes and their jobs at an equal or greater rate than people of color over lack off access to medical care or ability to pay rising insurance costs, claims that the President’s support of education and educational reform are about indoctrinating children against “family values”, and now the insistence that border & immigration reform that would have radically reduced the role Sheriff Joe played in AZ were akin to allowing a sea of undocumented (and shiftlessly criminal) people of color into the state. As with all of these examples, SB 2010s symbolic impact is a racial line in the sand that calls for the state sanctioned harassment of people on the basis of their skin color while at the same time, joining a chorus of people questioning the legitimacy of a black president and subsequently re/claiming the nation, citizenry, and governance, as whites only space.

The impact of this law is thus both legally and symbolically important to all of us. So far reports of similar policing in AZ have included issues such as:

  1. costing tax payers in Maricopa County $42 million in settlements for police brutality, unlawful search and seizure, and racial profiling
  2. leaving children on the side of the road to fend for themselves when parents are arrested
  3. decreased school performance and sense of safety for children
  4. the failure to investigate rape reports in a timely manner or, in some cases, at all to police Latin@s
  5. the incarceration of nursing mothers with no access to their children
  6. the breaking of a Chican@s’ arm while in custody for refusing to sign paperwork saying she would return to Mexico
  7. sexual assault of undocumented women by people either associated with or claiming to be associated with Border Patrol or border policing
  8. forcing Latin@ truck drivers to produce birth certificates to move products across the state (think 16 wheelers bringing your produce, the new furniture or fridge your going to buy at the big box store, etc.)
  9. the increase in armed theft
  10. the increase in petty criminality in isolated communities
  11. lack of safety for women, children, and families who are Latin@, interracial, indigenous, or other wise brown appearing
  12. increased open and publicly applauded connections to supremacy
  13. increased public connection between policing and racial profiling that makes everyone who “looks” brown unsafe
  14. the militarization and granting of state policing powers to largely untrained civilians who do not have to pass similar inspection or comply with state laws governing police conduct
  15. the harassment of journalists and attempted policing of news readers

The National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights has released a 4 point effort that anyone concerned about these issues can do to help restore civil rights in Arizona:

TAKE FOUR ACTIONS

NNIRR urges you take four actions NOW to take a stand for justice and human rights.

  1. Raise your voices for fairness and equality at the border. – Call Gov. Brewer’s office and tell her SB 1070 is a disaster for the rights of all our communities. SB 1070 will intensify racial discrimination, criminalization of immigrants – or anyone who does not pass as white or a U.S. citizen. CALL (602) 542-4331 | You can also email Gov. Brewer at: azgov@az.gov
  2. Organize a house-meeting, a vigil and other actions to express support for immigrant rights in Arizona and in your community. Also ask your family members, co-workers, neighbors and friends to talk about what is happening in Arizona. Ask them to make calls and send emails to Gov. Brewer with this message: We are all Arizona. Your law cannot break our spirit of community; your law will not stand. Racial profiling and racial discrimination are illegal and SB 1070 will be stopped.
  3. Build the movement for justice & human rights – tell President Obama to roll back the hate and end all immigration police-collaboration initiatives. Call President Obama to  ask him to speak out against the climate of hate and SB 1070. SB 1070 depends on federal immigration policing programs. Ask President Obama to roll-back the federal immigration enforcement programs that allow local police agencies to collaborate in immigration control. The 287(g) and Secure Communities programs are encouraging the kind of hateful activity we are witnessing in Arizona. CALL the White House at (202) 456-1111.
  4. Give direct support and express your solidarity to communities organizing on the ground in Arizona.

Students around the N. American Southwest, organized walkouts, marches, and protests in solidarity with Arizona. In Arizona, high school and college students also took to the streets in peaceful protests and marches in the hopes of being heard. In many communities, the first of May, ie May Day, will also be an opportunity to stand up for immigrants’ rights, immigration reform without racism, and to participate in the annual call to draw attention to and remove Sheriff Joe. Please be looking out for these efforts in your area as well as considering doing one or more of the four steps above. While you may not live in AZ, we are all ultimately impacted by the turn toward, public, state sanctioned racism, in N America. And the stats about rape cases, petty and weapon related theft, should make both women’s advocates and people in general concerned about their own safety even if they think they are unimpacted by the rise in hate crimes and racial profiling.

Link Luv Sunday

A lot went on in our world while I was sick and/or overworked (yes including all the late diss chapters I had to read during Spring Break, cue violins) so I thought some link love was in order to cover some of the issues I have not here at the blog and to honor some of the voices holding it down across the internet. Since it is still Women’s History Month and yours truly has failed so miserably in doing her own feminist spotlight posts, I have linked to several folks who did use their blogs to honor and highlight specific women throughout the month.

  • Swandiver – Michelle Alexander: The New Jim Crow highlights a talk by Alexander about her new book and the civil rights inequities that remain in the U.S. through the loopholes provided in the prison-industrial-complex
  • National Center for Transgender Equality – breaks down what the new Health Care Reform Bill means for trans communities trying to meet their health care needs
  • Guerilla Mama – “The Buddha, The Dharma, and the Sangha” – a painfully poetic discussion about the intersections of race, class, gender, nation, love, and family through the eyes of a black immigrant who survives an attempted rape (trigger warning)
  • Alexis – Happy Birthday Toni Cade Bambara – another informative and celebratory contribution from Alexis and her Black Feminist Mind Project
  • Vivir Latino – “19 years without justice” – 19 year old hate crime against a Dominican youth still not solved, yet his mother keeps the pressure on
  • Vegan About Town – Nacho Cheese Dip and Nacho Cheese Nachos because I was sick most of the week and unable to eat much, I got really enthralled by blogs about food (what the comic industry has referred to as food porn blogs b/c they make you drool) and I was particularly excited by how yummy Steph made this recipe sound since I am a picky eater & don’t eat anything with too much melted vegan cheese because of the melt quality (I like almond based cheeses for eating & soy based for melting but the latter only in small amounts)
  • Asian American Lit Fans – much like Feminist Review, this livejournal site offers accessible reviews of new and old fiction by API Americans and should just be a must read in general for anyone who loves books
  • Nezua – “Invisible: Thoughts on Immigration Rally in DC” – not only does Nezua look at the complexities of the reform in succinct text but he also has a powerful slideshow of photos from the event at the bottom of the post.
  • Viva La Feministe – “The Fly Girls are Finally Golden” – learn about the civilian women who helped win world war II but got little back for their service
  • The Green Belt Movement – “GBM Celebrates International Women’s Day” – truthfully I am just sending you to this blog to give you an example of what decolonized grassroots feminist environmentalism looks like.
  • Claire @ Hyphen Magazines – “Women’s History Month Profiles” – spotlights on Asian American feminists and women activists
  • Mark Anthony Neal  – “Women’s History Month Classic: Say My Name” – I happened to love this film and I teach it pretty regularly as a counterpoint to “the video ho” image of hip hop (of course I also like to trot out Tawny Kitaen for that purpose as well) so it was nice to see someone review this classic as part of women’s history month.
  • Annaham “Invisible Illness and Disability Bingo” – this post is old, but I just got sent there by vegans of color blog, and I have to tell you that as a person with “hidden” disabilities, not only have I experienced everything on that list but, like Damali Ayo’s rent-a-negro cards, I wish I had a stack of these to pass out to co-workers and family members whenever they made light of what it is like to be differently-abled

Happy Reading!

Go Ask Alice II (SyFy Channel Movie Review – Spoilers)

In Part I of my “Go Ask Alice” posts, I suggested that your money might be better spent renting the SyFy Channel’s update of the Alice in Wonderland story called Alice and waiting to see Tim Burton’s version on cable.  While I enjoyed much of Burton’s film, I honestly have no faults with the SyFy version (though the lyricism of the original is gone from the latter). Those familiar with SyFy Saturday film offerings should be reasonably skeptical here, but unlike those z-rate bad CGI throwaways, Alice is a medium budget film, has both new comers and accomplished actors and actresses, and a well written script.

James Dittiger/SyFy

Like Burton’s version, SyFy’s Alice also stars a grown up main character in a Wonderland set in the far of future from the time of the original story. This time the mid-to-late 20 something Alice lives with her mother and believes her father abandoned them when she was just a girl. She is drawn into the world of Wonderland through the capture of her boyfriend and potential fiance Jack, who is seemingly kidnapped by the White Rabbit. Thus begins an adventure that is more 1960s 007 than Victorian classic in which Alice holds the key to restoring both Wonderland and the lives of enslaved human beings.

At the center of the plot for SyFy’s version of the classic tale is a sort of Brave New World dependence on drugs to make the Wonderland population docile and obedient. To quote Director, Nick Willing:

“What I was interested in was [the idea of] being able to manufacture your emotions. One of the things I fear may happen to us is that we swap genuine emotions for something that is given to us. We cry at the television commercial and think that those tears are genuine. I was fascinated with, not so much in how these things could be addictive, but how we are slowly constructing a world where we swap genuine emotions or something which is manufactured cheaply. Wonderland seemed to be a good place to set that in because the Queen of Hearts has that kind of personality in the book.” (SyFy)

In this world, the “soma” comes from the milking of human emotions against their will and without their knowledge. The White Rabbit, an organization of henchmen trained to serve the interests of the Queen of Hearts, use the Looking Glass to enter the human world and steal unsuspecting humans for the procedure. These humans, called “oysters” because of the “precious pearl” of emotions inside them, are then put in a trance state and sent to the Casino where neurotransmitters in the floor collect their emotional responses to sexual stimulus, success at gambling, and other similar emotions. Like the oysters in the original Alice and Wonderland, the humans are entirely consumed by the people supposedly caring for and keeping them safe. Their emotions fuel a legal drug trade that is robbing Wonderland of its sanity, strength, and sense of purpose. Among those in charge are the re-imagined Walrus and Carpenter who are in control of the emotions extraction science and who, in the case of the Carpenter, ensure Alice’s import to revolution.

Standing against the tide is the resistance made up of a series of human versions of anthropomorphised animal characters from the book.

Animals

white rabbit/Dittiger/SyFy; white rabbit promo event/unattributed; Mad March/Dittiger/SyFy

There are no animals in Alice, unless you count the completely erased Cheshire cat. Instead, each of the characters has been re-imagined as human on both sides of the war. As I’ve already said, the White Rabbit is no langer a bunny in a top coat but instead a white haired man in a full suit with two ponytails down his back like rabbit ears. Alongside him, and his fellow henchmen who wear the mark of the White Rabbit organization, is Mad March (the hare). Willing’s March is a goon straight out of Goodfellas with a heavy accent and a pension for violence. A previous accident has left him without a head, so in keeping with the animals as human theme, Mad March’s head has been replaced by a porcelain rabbit head.

Tim Curry as Dodo/Dittiger/SyFy

The “animals” on the resistance side are no less imaginative. Dodo has been transformed from a bird into a cunning leader of the resistance played by Tim Curry. Where the original Dodo and the “caucus race” highlighted the problems with governmental caucus during  the late 1800s, the re-imagined Dodo questions the efficacy of a resistance in which winning matters more than the people for whom one fights. Tim Curry’s Dodo is willing to kill both oysters and Wonderlanders to overthrow the Queen of Hearts and he is willing to do so without consulting the rest of the resistance leadership. Moreover, at one point in his struggle with Hatter, he tells the members of his cell (also animals in the original) that they will not have to live in the basement any longer, implying that his real motivation is his own personal power over the political system of Wonderland. Whether you read Dodo as a beleaguered rebel who has sold his idealism for the follies of power over others or as a dogmatic leader who was really never as interested in the people as he was being at the helm of the cause, this re-imagining is a powerful though brief critique of politics on the left.

Alice, Caterpillar, & Jack/Dittiger/SyFy

Perhaps the best re-imagining of an animal character is the Caterpillar, who is now the eccentric head of the resistance. While he is visually stunning in his velvet smoking jacket that resembles the actual animal, gone is the seemingly nonsensical wisdom and condescending majestic of the character. Instead, this Caterpillar knows exactly who Alice is and why she is needed. Though he still seems to float outside of both worlds, he lets Alice know in no uncertain terms what is at stake in the struggle for Wonderland. Like Burton’s White Queen, he also asks Alice to choose the burden she must bear, but unlike Burton’s White Queen, he comes across as both compassionate and burdened by the struggle around him. As the alternative face of resistance, he both contextualizes why Dodo would have grown weary with his underground machinations and why real activism requires a commitment to The People (both the oppressed and those who have not yet learned that oppression exists) as much as the ideas for social justice to be successful.

While all of these characters are truly innovative and seeing how they translate is its own kind of magic, the absence of the Cheshire Cat illustrates what is lost in the SyFy version. Instead of the magical disappearing creature who is both wise and wily, we get an ordinary cat who walks through one scene in order to direct Alice’s attention to where she must go. In the original the animals provided both the biting critique and the whimsy of the text, their poetry and lyrical deconstruction of words and ideology was essential to the wonder in the land. SyFy’s Alice has neither lyricism nor much non-human magic, in fact, in a very literal sense, magic is replaced by technology. For die-hards of the original, the absences here will be a major stumbling block and yet, as some one who loves the lyricism and what it represents in the orignal Alice in Wonderland, I can’t say this version is worse, rather it is unique and intriguing despite its key differences. (I would also add that Willing’s Hatter is in some ways the way I would imagine the Cheshire Cat as human. His spikey hair, humor, and ability to move between the Queendom and the resistance with guile, is very similar to the dual agent I assume the Cat would be in Willing’s Wonderland, and yet, I think Willing really should have put his immense imagination toward transforming the Cheshire Cat as a character in his own right.)

You will also note that the absence of animals also means the absence of comment on the treatment of animals.

Women and/or Feminism

The conflict in SyFy’s Alice is between the resistance and the Hearts. Men outnumber women on both sides of the conflict, and in fact, the resistance is almost exclusively populated by men versus the Hearts which have some key female players. This is obviously problematic; what kind of new world will Wonderlanders have if there are no high ranking female resistance fighters? Nevertheless, the women on all sides of the conflict represent intelligent, savvy, and self-directed characters who do what they want to get what they want.

In the real world, Alice is a martial arts expert with commitment issues. One of Willing’s most subtle comments on gender politics, is the way he consistently blocks the characters in fight scenes so that the men of the resistance try to position Alice behind them but ultimately Alice must come from behind to protect both herself and them. Time and again, it is Alice who rescues them from impossible odds with her physical strength and bravery. Though, like the original, she often marches into situations without a clue how she will handle them, she also comes up with some of the best plans to rescue her father, her friends, and the humans.

Alice and Jack/Dittiger/SyFy

Where her feminism may falter, is in the fact that Alice is motivated by her heterosexual love affair with Jack. All though she will not go with Jack when he invites her to meet his mother, she follows him through the Looking Glass when she thinks he is in danger. Her decision is far from lovestruck, she actually falls into the Looking Glass while demanding the White Rabbit agent tell her what he has done to Jack. Nevertheless, she does not go to Wonderland out of curiosity or interest but rather to find her boyfriend.

Despite all of the stories about the oppressive reign of the Queen of Hearts, during the first half of the movie Alice cares very little about the oppression in Wonderland. Instead, she continues to redirect everyone to her quest to save Jack. When Hatter tells her that she has inspired him to join the resistance in earnest and fight for his people’s freedom, Alice actually gets upset because she is starting to like him and his decision for the greater good means he can’t spend all his time following her around. This is hardly revolutionary sexual politics here. All though her motivation changes near the end of the film, toward saving all of the humans, her story still ends with the kind of family romance tale of patriarchy’s past. (And just to be clear, it is a romantic tale in which I too rooted for the man Alice chooses and was swept away by their reunion, but it is still problematic that Alice’s story ends with “alas dear reader, I married him.”)

Queen and King of Hearts/Dittiger/SyFy

The Queen of Hearts in Alice is true to the original in her myopia and her cruelty. Unlike Burton, who reduces the Queen to a differently-abled meglomaniac whose psychosis is a direct result of her “laughable” physical difference, Willing gives us a Queen drunk on power. She runs the kingdom with a heavy hand not because she is unloved, the King loves her, but because she is easily bored and does not tolerate incompetence. Her commitment to the mining of human emotions is also more complex than simply oppressing one group of people (humans) in order to oppress another (Wonderlanders); in this version, the drugs keep Wonderland’s economy booming and an economic depression at bay. Much like Dodo then, the Queen is a commentary on investment in power by any means necessary.  Like Thatcher, the Queen of Hearts uses the master’s tools to run the Queendom and those tools are based upon and honed in oppression. For those who support a feminist narrative invested in female leadership at any cost, the Queen of Hearts has done her part. She employs a vast amount of the population, works to keep the economy prosperous, has ended overt war, and is respected as the most powerful person in the land and yet, she is a violent, slave-owning, leader who spies on and terrifies her people and revels in the psychotic aspects of her rule. Hardly the woman anyone would want in charge or representing the face of feminism.


The Duchess/ Dittiger/SyFy

Rounding out the female cast is the Duchess, Jack’s fiance. I must admit that what I love about her is that she looks like she was torn from the pages of Barbarella with her long tresses, heavy eye make-up, and go go boots. As implied, where Alice represents female brain and braun and the Queen of Hearts represents corrupt female leadership, the Duchess is all female sexual power. While many will dismiss her as just another pretty face in a short skirt, the Queen of Hearts tells us the Duchess is one of her best operatives. Not only is she good at getting information and manipulating men around her, but it soon becomes clear that the Duchess is no coquette. Instead, she understands that in the largely male world of Wonderland her survival depends on the ability to both manipulate men and align with powerful women. Like Alice, in the course of the story, she never compromises her own integrity for power. And while she does feel considerably jealous of Alice, Willing makes sure not to play up unilateral violence or internalized sexism between the two women beyond the Duchess’ reducing Alice with a glare. There is something wonderful about how Willing allows the Duchess to work while still making Alice the object of desire in the room; in lesser hands, these moments would have come off as trite, useless female infighting, or simply a game of who is prettier (which they do play but only until everyone’s motivations are finally on the table).

The Duchess, Jack, and Alice/ Dittiger/SyFy

While I would not say that these characters are all feminist or even that the majority of them are, they are far more complex than either the orignal Alice in Wonderland or Tim Burton’s film make women out to be. I liked that each one of the main female characters had both positive and negative characteristics, that they were motivated by both individual feeling and larger structural issues, and that at no time did the script degenerate into a “cat fight” that demeaned one or more of the women involved. Instead Willing’s directorial eye seems to treat each of these women with respect even as he remains true to the critique of the Queen and her Queendom.

This is not to say that film is without unnecessary eye candy. The casino is populated by Vegas Show Girls and mini-skirted black jack dealers whose job is to look pretty and keep the peace. Most of these girls have no names and no lines and are simply background. And while the femme in me revels at the Duchess’ outfits and thinks they are appropriate for the role she plays, some will likely take offense to how much skin she shows and that her major power comes from seduction.

The only woman on the side of the resistance, besides Alice, is a mouse; literally a woman playing what was once a mouse in the original text. She dresses like a 1950s housewife and squeaks her way through her role. However, when she believes the resistance is threatened she steps up, showing a steely resolve that is otherwise absent from the character.

Race

10 of clubs/dittiger/SyFy

Willing also does a great job of taking a film originally set in England and remembering that it can populate it with anyone. While there are no people of color in major roles, there are two in recurring ones. Both the Nine and Ten of Clubs are played by men of color, one Asian-Canadian and one Latino. Both of these characters are high ranking officers in the Queens court and empowered to put even her son and her spies in check when they are not following the Queens demands. The Nine of Clubs, played by Alessandro Juliani, formerly Commander Gaeta on BSG, is so important that the King of Hearts stays his execution when the King orders him killed in a rage.

There are no major female characters of color in Alice. However, Carmelina Cupo, who is 1/2 Italian and 1/2 Latina, plays the only dealer in the Casino with a speaking role. Like the men of color in the Queens court, Cupo holds a position that is seemingly interchangeable and yet integral to the running of the entire Queendom. Cupo also tries to stand up to Alice when Alice begins the overthrow of the Hearts.

The near absence of women of color calls the Duchess’ role into question. As the femme fatale, her blonde-haired blue-eyed, alabaster skinned, presence as the woman everyone wants reaffirms white hegemony through sexual desire. Not only is she Barbie but she is a Duchess to Cupo’s black jack girl. And yet, in a world in which woc are absent, Willing really does take the Barbie as beautiful myth to task by making Alice the center of everyone’s attention and desire and recasting Alice as a dark haired, intelligent, and physically strong woman. Ultimately, the critical eye he takes to white women does not negate the need for more women of color in this film.

It is always easy to excuse away why there are no characters of color in fantasy or sci-fi, especially when the material was written in the past. What astounds me about how easy it is, is the fact that people are willing to accept talking animals, singing plants, or even aliens and twenty tentacled demons before they are willing to ask why there are no people of color or queer folk in fantasy land. While Willing doesn’t offer us major poc characters, or any queer ones, I for one am grateful he at least tried.

Ability

Frewer as the White Knight/Dittiger/SyFy

As I said in my review of Burton’s Alice and Wonderland, the ableism of that movie is entirely invented when it comes to physical difference. Willing therefore neither needs nor uses similar devices in his plot. In fact, he has stripped Hatter of his supposed madness, which readers of the book will know was more of a disguise than an imbalance anyway, and replaced it with cunning and know-how.

There is one character who is clearly “mad”: The White Knight. Matt Frewer, who usually delights, was grating as the seemingly unstable man who has taken on the White Knight persona in lieu of there being any surviving Knights from the war. His madness however is indistinguishable from his actual psychic abilities and pure luck. In many ways, Willing offers us a character whose abilities are more in keeping with the idea of people, regardless of ability, as differently-abled; while the sane characters in his script are prone to inexplicable behavior, the mad man in Alice is often able to use his “madness” to get the job done. When he fails, he fails due to cowardice not mental instability.

Conclusion


What Alice lacks in whimsy and lyricism, it more than makes up for in intrigue and innovation. The story is compelling from beginning to end. Instead of giving us trite and transparent venues and flat characters, Alice and it’s Director, Willing, gives us a vibrant, three dimensional, reimagining in which each and every character is complex. (Though I didn’t spend time on them in this review, It should also be noted that Potts does a superb job as Hatter and the re-imagining of Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum as mindbending torturers for the Queen is inspired.) Willing also retains both the class critique of the original and adds to it a critical eye to modern societal issues and what they mean for who we are becoming. His criticism of leadership and his subtle exploration of resistance are far more powerful than much of what we get in this world of blogging, twitter, and headline news.

My only criticisms are that the Cheshire Cat is missing and the White Knight is truly annoying. When Frewer is centered in the scene, I literally found myself holding my head and looking away. But other than that, I did not want to miss a minute and neither should you.

If you didn’t see it on cable in December, you can rent it at your local video store, check it out through Netflix, or buy it for fairly cheap on both itunes and local video stores. I guarantee you that in comparison to the over-hyped and underwhelming Burton version, you will think it is money well spent.