District 9: Do You See What I see?

Last night I read a wordpress hawt post “District 9 is racist” by Nicole Stamp @ Pageslap, it arrived as the only criticism of the film I have seen to date and less than 24 hours before I went to see the movie myself. Until then, all I had heard was that District 9 was a powerful allegory for Apartheid in which the regime was clearly indicted in similar ways to how Alien Nation had questioned the racism in the U.S. when it was made.

Scene-from-District-9-200-001

I am not going to recreate Stamp’s review. Her original post, now radically rewritten, hits most of the key points about why this movie is nothing like Alien Nation mostly b/c of its commitment to creating both allegorical and real racist images of Africans. If we are to believe that this an Apartheid critique, and the not-so-thinly veiled reference to District 6 should be obvious to most historians of South Africa, then we have to believe the aliens are problematic stand-ins for black South Africans, the aliens, as Stamp points out, are dirty, nasty, dangerous, and violent creatures with few exceptions. Tho Stamp and I differ slightly on some of the nuances of race in the film, particularly w/ regard to her rewritten post that “gives the aliens a pass”, I’d say there is very little else to add to a decolonized perspective of this film. And honestly, after listening to the young man behind me in the theater cheer as both alien and Nigerian’s heads/bodies exploded or they were beaten and/or riddled with bullets, or the ways that so many in the audience adopted a derogatory term for the aliens when only 2 hours earlier that term had had no meaning, has left me mostly silent. I type. I erase. I type. I turn away. There was no cheering when the military were blown to bits. There were no slow shots or gun angle shots when MNU officials and military were killed. How easy it is to teach or play on hierarchical difference. How easy it is to internalize it especially when the film’s depictions encourage the recognition of oppression even as it attempts to dismantle it.

For the most part, Stamp’s review is focused on race, but there are also extremely questionable gender and sexuality issues in this film.  District 9 is populated with human men and seemingly male aliens. While Stamp mentions the sexual exploitation of Nigerian women by the Nigerians to service the aliens, there are many more instances in which gender and sexuality come into play in negative ways.

The film is done as a documentary long after the end of the main character’s journey. The documentary piece of the film, includes a male journalist expert on aliens and a female academic (both white) whose sympathies clearly lie with the aliens. As Stamp points out in her comments on this post, Dr. Sarah Livingston’s comments take a sociological approach to the social conditions governing the oppression of the aliens, including explaining the derogatory names for them. Another white woman, Dr. Katrina Mackee, is also interviewed for the documentary. Her contribution to the documentary is to talk about how important medical treatment is for Merwe’s and to say how much she cares about him and wants to help him.  Both women straddle the line between empowering figures and stereotypes. On the one hand they are educated women whose opinions are as valid as all the male informants in the documentary. On the other,  they promote a “kinder, gentler” caring face of what is in fact a horrible situation. While Dr. Livingston sighs and talks about the horrible oppression, her male counterpart, gives an even-toned analytical view of the relationship between humans and aliens; it is a subtle difference in a film that lacks subtlety. While Dr. Mackee’s lies are no different than many of the MNU employees interviewed, the others are largely outside of need to know and therefore do not think they are lying. Dr. Mackee on the other hand knows exactly what kind of experimentation they do at MNU and has likely been briefed on what was done to Merwe, so that she, rather than a male doctor, is offered up by the corporation to humanize the alien experimentation and torture they do  through mobilization of femininity and gender stereotype.

Several other women, all women of color, speak as part of the documentary. For the most part their contributions highlight their own lack of information about what is really going on and their fear of aliens. This same fear is also repeated by black people on the street in scenes that not only mirror apartheid but recent anti-immigrant attacks in South Africa. For the most part these women’s positions in the company are unimportant. One or two are mid-level bureaucrats or military while others are admin assistants. The ones with the office jobs more often than not are what South Africans call “colored.”   The differences between them and the white women in the doc, from their positions, intelligence, and willingness to side with fear, mirror the differences between the depiction of white women on one hand and women of color and aliens on the other in the main story of the film. Not only are woc positions lower ranked, their fear of the aliens rather than sympathy for their plight furthers an ongoing narrative in the film that juxtaposes white people’s behavior toward the aliens with that of poc. While both ostracize and exploit them, poc are always depicted as being the more parasitical, brutal, or superstitious. The cameras gaze, coupled with a few key lines or screams, invites the audience to judge the later thru the lens of barbarism that is wholly absent in the film’s critique of MNU. The film is never more clear about its hierarchies of oppression and “goodness” than through the lens of women.

The actual story of the film, revolves around Wikus Van De Merwe, a naive bureaucrat put in charge of the relocation of the aliens from a shanty town to an even smaller tent city in a move that not only mirrors Apartheid but also modern day refugee camps. The women featured in the main story are all in stereotypical service positions. Merwe”s wife, who he calls “an angel with a halo”, is one of two white women in the main story, both of whom are blonde, blue eyed, and utterly devoid of purpose beyond wife and mother. While his mother worries about her son b/c of his lack of intelligence, his wife believes her father’s lies about him over her own eyes b/c, you know, women are stupid and prone to confusion. They are also, the only women who are interviewed as part of the documentary who are also part of the main story, presumably because of their relationship to Merwe; however, the women of color who interact with him in District 9 have as much to contribute as some of the co-workers interviewed, except of course, those who could testify to his alien transformation were all presumably killed when alien tech saves Merwe for a final showdown with the military. (I say presumably b/c they are not pictured in this scene, but none of the Nigerians are left alive.)

The black women in this film are even less relevant to the main plot. They do not even have names, they are just background noise. They fall into two categories: sex workers and food service workers. The food service workers stare out in the same blank way that most do in the real world, neither speaking nor commenting, just silently working with clear disdain. Though they are the first disinterested party to recognize Merwe during the manhunt, none of them are interviewed for the documentary reinforcing their irrelevance from the perspective of the film. As for the sex workers, they too are silent props in Blomkamp’s world. In one scene, where the main character confronts the head of the Nigerian gangsters exploiting district 9, a woman screams in the background clearly being physically and possibly sexually abused by several of the men. Blomkamp pulls back his camera just moments before revealing what they are doing to her behind the curtain, but uses her torture as another example of what the Nigerians will do to get their hands on alien technology. Given that by this point in the film, they have already hacked an alien to death while calling him stupid, eaten aliens b/c a witch doctor told them too, and actually gotten out small eating knives to feast on the main character while he writhes at their feet, is the abuse of this woman necessary to prove that point? Or are her screams just another way to drive home the underlining depiction of black people as unsympathetic violent barbarians in a film whose surface level point is to question how we, as humans, dehumanize and oppress those who are different?

There is only one identified female alien in the movie. She is wearing a dirty pink bra and peeing on her own house when MNU officials and the military approach. Blomkamp does not trust his viewers enough to be disgusted by the scene so he mirrors the reaction we should have through Merwe’s character, who exclaims incredulously, “Don’t pee on your own house!” There is no explanation given by our documentary interviewee experts as to why aliens would pee on their homes. Instead it is yet another example of how disgusting the aliens actually are a digust the film clearly parallels with the actions of the Nigerians a traditionally stigmatized group in South Africa.

Aliens do not need clothes. Most do not wear them, preferring to use paint. Those who are clothed are often established by the film to be “smarter” than the others. While clothes establish intelligence for the male aliens, there is no similar credential for the one alien female. Her dirt smudged pink bra is simply there to further demean her as unfeminine and dirty. Much like the faceless and wordless sex workers, she is simply a silent piece of flesh to be demeaned by the characters of the film and it’s writer/director.

Finally, what turns Merwe’s wife and the rest of Jo’berg against him is not that he is sick (alien induced illness) but rather the lie the company tells about him having sex for hours with an alien. Their revulsion is one of many racialized parallels in the film. After all, no one in District 9 worries over what Nigerian women sex workers do with the aliens or how they are sexually exploited by Nigerians gangsters. These moments happen without comment either by the film’s well-crafted gaze nor by the characters in the film. Yet when a “our white hero” supposedly sleeps with an alien, the scenes of discovery are slowed down to give the movie audience time to be upset, to watch each moment of shock and disdain. These images are also the source of stated disgust, horror, amd mocking amusement by the characters in the film.

This would be bad enough, but what underlines the reaction is decidedly homophobic. The images are not just of Wikus Van De Merwe having sex with an alien but, as one gangster put it, “doing it doggie style.” Since the aliens mostly present as male this heterosexualizing of the sex act everyone is pouring over with such intense disdain fails to undo the homophobia that is critical to how the act is viewed by both audience and characters in the film.  Put another way, part of their fascination and disgust with the images is that they are clearly same sex. (For naysayers, remember that it is not just the position of the bodies but also that we saw Merwe interact with the alien earlier in the film and call him by a male name.)

These pictures also operate along oppressive lines on one other level, the myth of “taint.” Merwe’s is sanctioned and hunted by the populace b/c the company’s images and the growing knowledge of his transformation imply that his homosexual sex acts have infected him and he is now sick, in both senses of the word. The dripping disgust from his wife and the mocking disgust from the Nigerians all hinges on the idea that the aliens are dirty, that having sex with them is perverse, and that same sex activity is the kind of filthy you cannot wash off. Why else would the Nigerians, who pimp out there own women, spend so much time pouring over the images of Merwe with the alien? After all, they know that heterosexual sex won’t cause transformation because all of the women are still human. And even if they were not trying to find the connection between Merwe’s behavior and his transformation, their dangerous mocking has everything to do with the perception that he has gay sex. (Where the film relies on an understanding of this revulsion by the audience it is just as guilty as the characters in it. Audience members in my theater were both shocked by the images and disgusted by them in a decidedly homophobic way. The boy behind me even said “see that’s sick. they’re trying to make him a gay alien f-cker to make those ppl kill him.” Even in his ignorant xenophobic homophobic world, that boy understood what Blomkamp wanted us to see.)

Ultimately, race and gender work in conjunction with a script that asks us to identify with a man who makes abortion jokes while killing alien nestlings, unabashedly uses a derogatory slur when addressing or talking about them, and willingly sacrifices his alien companion and all of the refugees to get what he wants (lying to his child about it) until the last few minutes of the film. (And it should be noted that while Merwe is perfectly willing to shoot or sacrifice an alien to meet his own needs, the aliens continually save him or offer to remain with him, resurrecting the mammy image of the oppressed that served to justify so much paternalism during slavery, Apartheid, and modern day oppressions.) In a world where marginalized people are only props in the white imaginary to teach lessons about morality and humanity to themselves, I can see why those few minutes of heroism and the plight of poor-not-so-bright Merwe are compelling. Afterall, he is depicted as an every man just trying to do his job, never mind that his job includes exterminating children, beating and abusing unarmed aliens, and thinking of himself as inherently better than anyone, human or alien, who lives in District 9. If you are used to unearned privilege, it is easy to forget that he lies to a child who has helped him survive about sacrificing his father to the military b/c his dad won’t do what Merwe wants fast enough or even that Merwe threatened to torture that same child for its entire childhood earlier in the movie to get the father to move out of his house. And if you identify with Merwe over the aliens, which the film encourages you to do by making them dirty, vulgar, creatures, than you can easily overlook that Merwe watches his companion be beaten repeatedly and says “you can keep him, just let me go.” For the majority of moviegoers Merwe is the victim who counts. His victimization is the only lens through which these disgusting, dirty, violent, aliens’ torture can be understood b/c Blomkamp gives us no other lens with which to view them, nor the majority of the women and poc who are tortured and die in this film without comment. Blomkamp fails to challenge the supremacist thinking that the film’s viewpoint requires. That sad truth is what concerns me more than the idea of Merwe as victim, since he was in fact being hunted, tortured, and facing the destruction of his family and career.

And in a world of boys with increasingly bigger toys, women only matter in as much as they help alleviate social or sexual frustrations. Their humanity becomes increasingly less important the further you get from the actual Barbie like “angel” that is Merwe’s wife. For me these mostly nameless, wordless, dirty, abused female “background actors” had me questioning the role of women in every Jackson film to date, even if he was only the producer. Any cache he bought with me in making LOTR has now been washed away by the remake of King Kong (his offensive project) and the producing of District 9 whose surface level critique of bigotry is like a shiny veneer over layer upon layer of rot.

In leaving the theater, I heard ppl talking about hwo disgusting the aliens were and how cool this film would be “if it were a video game”, in other words, how cool it would be if they could shoot the aliens themselves. Every single person referred to the aliens by the derogatory term we were told from the beginning of the film was offensive; it’s hard to say how much of that was a testament to how easily hatred is internalized and how much was because Blomkamp gave us no alternative name for them, proving once again the aliens were really irrelevant to the real story about white male humanity.  The one shining hope was that several of these same viewers were also discussing how, to quote one, “that movie really made humanity look bad.”

District 9 has been universally praised by the mainstream and viewers alike because despite all of its flaws it does address greed, violence, and oppression on this planet. As I’ve said, the audience walking out of my theater definitely heard the message that we were in the wrong. But I would argue that other films have made this point much more successfully and minus much of the racial messages, if not also the gender and sexuality ones. These films include: Alien Nation (which was also a critically acclaimed tv series), Star Man (which also became a critically acclaimed tv series) and Enemy Mine. These are only a few films in a vast array, even ET reflects on corporate and government greed and the vilification of the other. On the small screen, the Twilight Zone and the Outer Limits tackled these issues regularly as well. Blomkamp’s film is neither unique nor the best available example. Rather than watch a film that is just a more cebral version of Stormship Troopers with a conscience, why not rent one of these films and do some real thinking about oppression in our world and why Jackson (the producer) and Blomkamp (the writer/director) seem only capable of giving us a moving vision of a world when there are no people of color (or stands in for them) in it.

———-

If you want to engage in a critical discussion of race, gender, and sexuality in this film feel free to comment (tho to get the full picture of the film, you really need to read Stamp’s original draft of the post linked at the beginning alongside this one). If you’ve seen the film and want to raise other questions or expand on these, your opinions are not only welcome but invited. I want to hear from you especially if you are an intersectionally minded fan of the film.

8 thoughts on “District 9: Do You See What I see?

  1. Hey, it’s Nicole from Pageslap. Thanks for the shout-out. One little thing you might want to correct before the masses get here to nitpick: the film was written & directed by Niall Blomkamp; Peter Jackson produced it.

    I agree that the women in the action parts of the story were marginalized, and that Wikus’ wife was a bit of a simpering Barbie, but I decided to let that go because there were a couple of female experts in the documentary sections who I thought were presented as competent and thoughtful. I remember one white one in particular (she’s the one who tells us about the prostitution and gives us the name “prawn”, explaining that it’s derogatory), and I feel like there miiight? have also been a black woman expert? I can’t remember. But I decided that woman at least gave us one female character we could respect, so I gave the flick a bare minimum gender “pass” and didn’t get into it in my review.

    • welcome to the blog Nicole. thanks for both corrections. I did completely ignore the documentary bits in my review. There are several woc and moc who speak as part of the documentary according to IMDB, and two woc who stand out in my memory. I remember thinking they were only there to distract from the actions of the characters in the “actual story.”

      will make changes ASAP.😀

      Also, I wasn’t trying to criticize by mentioning your focus on race and not gender or sexuality, just trying to contribute another layer of analysis for the film. I do hope my readers get a chance to read your piece.

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  3. Actually, some of the people who are saying that District 9 would be a great video game aren’t thinking about killing the aliens. I should know, I think it would make a great video game, and I imagine myself playing an alien character who gets to kill all the humans. Whether this is the better way to think, I do not know. I’ll admit that the movie was sexist, but it’s still my favorite movie and I feel incredibly guilty about it. However, I once heard a woman say that Tania was her role-model for some reason I cannot begin to comprehend. My mom claims that it might be because Tania’s pretty, but that just upsets me even more. I admire characters such as Rachel from Animorphs who seemed like a Barbie doll at first glance, but was actually a kickass warrior once you got to know her, or Buffy who presented the same image as Rachel did, and I admired them for their character. The fact that any woman could see Tania as someone to look up to doesn’t say well for our society. In all honesty, if Wikus and Tania were having serious problems with their marriage before this incident, I could have believed that she would turn on him like that, but they were both happily married, so she had no reason to do so.

    • welcome to the blog Diane. While one feeds into the other, I think videogaming would require its own critique. But I think it’s always good to go back to Hall’s encoding and decoding to think abt what messages are embedded in a film and what we take away from them as 2 distinct but related processes.

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