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Category Archives: media

Kenya’s Workspace

You need to watch this. Some of the videos are chilling, others are funny. (And maybe chillingly funny?) You can even create your own online art gallery experience and play a few of them at the same time to find out what the viral expressions of female identity look and sound like in unison.

(thank me later)

 

On John Mayer (And Apologies That Don’t Really Offer Clarity)

Upon a few hours of trying to process reports of offensive remarks that popular musician John Mayer made in the current issue of Playboy magazine, I tried coming up with a few clever Facebook status-updates, my favorite being that Mayer sorely needed a Racism and Sexism course. (I didn’t publish that, but I still think it’s true) Though a pornographic magazine is the (very overlooked) context for all of his statements about who he’s had sex with, how it was, and who he won’t–there remain key issues in this media event.

Jessica Simpson

Superficially, it’s another example of a celebrity making a “gaffe” on race, (which never gets old) getting caught up in it, “apologizing” for it, melting down, having a moment of “clarity“.

But on another level, it’s a particularly vivid example of the freedom, if you will, afforded him, as young, white, heterosexual, and male, to freely espouse his sexual proclivities, debase women period, race be damned, claim identification with black people, promptly get hated on, have a breakdown, and in the end, remind us that he “just wants to play his guitar.” And in a span of 48 hours, no less.

Kerry Washington

The racism of his sexual aversion to black women, I’d argue, is coupled with the sexist entitlement abound in his retelling of the sexual details of his relationships with Jessica Simpson and Jennifer Aniston, who as blonde-haired white women, already receive a particularly stifling type of media treatment. That entitlement helps explain why he was able to candidly explain the types of black women he’s attracted to, and even debase women, like actor Kerry Washington, whom he’s never had a sexual relationship with.

Without even reading his entire Playboy interview, the widely-publicized excerpts are textbook examples of intersections of racism, sexism and male domination–comparing his penis to white supremacist David Duke, crude as it is, is simultaneously as clear as many of Mayer’s most popular songs.

Global media culture has long thrived off of narrowly defined notions of who’s racist (white men only) and who’s sexist (black men only) vis a vis characters like a Don Imus or Ludacris. So when Mayer, someone outside of those types, who has built a career and image solidly as a non-threatening and introspective artist, acts out, we take notice. For those paying any attention, it’s an important moment that should have us recognize the myriad of ways that domination can be made visible.

Part of what’s critical about Mayer’s moment is that even after speaking as he did, he will be allowed to use that image as his cover. This is where nearly all public “apologies” are rendered useless–as a comedian once remarked, “He’s just sorry he got caught.” What’s really evident is that the entitlement of racism and sexism will enable John Mayer to “breakdown”, come to “terms” with his transgressions and return to modest guitar-playing.

But will Jessica Simpson, Jennifer Aniston, and Kerry Washington be allowed a (public) breakdown? I doubt it.

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Good Hair: About Us but Not For Us

Documentary films are often powerful in doing what typical mainstream media outfits can’t: accidentally reveal truths. There’s a moment in comedian Chris Rock’s Good Hair when a group of young black women discuss the realities of having straightened hair in order to secure work. When her friends express their concern for her, the lone woman with naturally styled hair has a look on her face that says more about the underlying tensions of the issue of black women and hair than do the other two hours of film. But before the viewer can fully engage in the moment, there’s a cut.

The filmic cut is emblematic of a truth evident in both the form and content of Good Hair: a practice of simultaneously exploiting and promoting black women all for a bottom line—be it in the male-dominated black female hair care industry or in a mainstream film about black women that doesn’t have women of any race in principal production roles.

At the root of the colorful, fast-paced filmic spectacle that is Good Hair belies a $9 billion dollar global industry in which men, whether they are in the U.S. or Asia, control production, distribution, and ultimately are the major profiteers of black female hair products. Female workers in Asia comb through the hair, Asian female clerks in the U.S. sell it, and black women pay upwards of $1,000 for hair weave. So when black (male) business owners complain about Asian merchants impeding their “right” to control the industry, one wonders if it matters who’s in control when all scenarios leave black women as the economically exploited.

How does this relate to the production choices in Good Hair? Consider an indie film about the same topic–In Our Heads About Our Hair, a lower budget, work in progress doc from first time filmmaker Anu Prestonia. Within a few minutes of In Our Heads, black female scholar Farah Jasmine Griffin offers a succinct historical context to black women and hair care. Griffin even says the R-word: racism. (Rock has Al Sharpton and Paul Mooney offer up snappier analyses) While Rock relies on a white male scientist to explain the health impact of sodium hydroxide-laden hair perms, Anu actually finds a black woman, environmental activist Majora Carter, to discuss the impact of those compounds on the earth.

You’d need an entirely separate essay to review the misogyny inherent in the level of airtime afforded to the many men in the film (rapper Ice-T being the most prominent) who joke about the multiple costs of love and sex with women who straighten or weave in their hair. In Our Heads provides a rich example of the black female subjectivity that should rightfully be central in a film about black women and hair. And it’s not coincidental that Prestonia worked with a largely female film crew.

Any successes that Good Hair may boast must be underscored by the fact that currently, a famous black male comedian will have a decidedly easier time making a film about black women than likely any black woman will, famous or not (okay, Oprah could do it). The question is, though, can he make it funny and non exploitative? After seeing Good Hair, the answer is Not yet.

I won’t deny Rock’s comedic brilliance—you will laugh often. Nor will I disregard his motives—he starts the film as an ode of sorts to his two daughters. Perhaps Good Hair’s popularity (assumed due to a fairly rigorous promotional campaign) will open the door for films like In Our Heads. But the film remains a sobering example of how a film about black women is not actually for us.

 
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Posted by on November 9, 2009 in black women, global capitalism, media, sexism

 

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i mean, i can’t front on barack

Let’s be clear about it; Barack Obama had my vote long before he made this brilliant speech:

I was stunned after reading only partial transcripts of it online. I instant message my ex-boyfriend, “Wow, did you see Barack hold it down?” Yes, he responds. “Barack ‘killed’ it.” I call my Dad while walking to the train, “I loooove Barack Obama,” I declared to him. “I love him too,” he replied. “I heard the speech–I wept.”

My dad does not cry (at least not often).

I sit on the train, dazed at something I haven’t even seen yet. From the mini-world of iPod, I overhear an Indian man talking to a white man about a “speech.” They both look impressed. I quickly remove my earphones and listen in, having them confirm what I instinctively know. If there were ever a critical speech about race, this was it.

I get home later that night and watch Jon Stewart (in what was probably in the top 3 of my all time favorite episodes of The Daily Show) make fun of Obama in his speech and then quip that “he talked to us about race like we were adults.” Grown indeed.

I finally, physically watch it really early the next morning. A good friend has already emailed me the link. Lying in my bed, stomach down, I watch the YouTube version, trying to make it bigger. And within minutes, I cry.

I mean, I cry. For a lot of reasons, a lot of them. Some mixture of surprise, pride and relief. Someone honestly, honestly, addressing racism. And making sure that a lot of people would hear. In between tears, I think that maybe I don’t care if he wins or not. I mean of course I care. But you know, if this is as far as he goes, if this speech ends up being the thing from the election season, then we’re not doing too badly. But then, you know, Barack–no matter what the news reports, the Clinton Camp, or the latest polls try to demonstrate–is ahead in the delegate count. Bottom line.

He might be the next president.

You can’t front on that.

But the tale’s in tears. Let me tell you. A couple of days later, I talk on the phone with an old friend. He revels about how he “can’t even tell what’s real anymore”, what with all the iPhones and the cell phones and the tv and the music and whatever else is about mediated contact. I reassure him that he’s only laying out the foundation of what is media studies. And after recommending a few books, I tell him that the best I can do as someone who is fascinated and overwhelmed by media, is to allow media to enhance rather than replace my “real” life. Adding another layer to connections and make new things possible. If I can respond to media, emotionally.

Case in point–a black man, living in my hometown, running for president who gives a speech a few states away, making me cry about it a day later.

That’s the kinda media I’m down with–can’t front on it.

 

the rape of britney spears


That got your attention, didn’t it? I paused as I wrote it, looked it up to make sure I wasn’t completely far fetching this one, and indeed, saw that one of the definitions of rape is the “violent, destructive, or abuse treatment of something,” I realized that I am not off. Not in the least. I read it and thought, yep, that is what’s happening to Britney Spears, on the daily, for everyone to see. And because no one is fussing in the least about this (save for a “crazy” YouTube fan), we’re all complicit and participating.

Of course, I am not supposed to care about this. Though Britney and I are both twenty something year old women, I am black, poorer college educated and an artist. Those first two commonalities—age and gender—however, are enough to keep me interested in what happens to her.

I think of her partly because she’s been thrust in my face, whether I want to see her or not. And anytime I can awarely tell that I’m being inundated with any kind of image (or image of a person), I start wondering.

Strange how 2007 has spelled the demoralization of Spears, against a specific landscape of young, rich, blonde haired (Lindsay Lohan, Nicole Richie, Paris Hilton, and lets throw in Anna Nicole Smith who is older than them but significant all the same) white women. Though they have all had exhaustive on-screen and on print time this year, Spears eclipses them all as her fall from pop “icon” graces, fall from sanity, and fall from mothering have been well scrutinized.

Though there have been equally important mediated events regarding black women, in this one week, no less (Anucha Browne Sanders victory over Isaiah Thomas and Madison Square Garden in the sexual harassment trial, the tragic death of Nailah Franklin, a younger black professional woman from my hometown that got perhaps more press than any other missing black woman prior to), I turn to Britney. It feels odd. Because, again, I am not supposed to care.

Comic Sarah Silverman jokes that at 25, Spears has accomplished everything she’s going to accomplish in life. That her demise has garnered interest and reaction from so many makes me wonder if there could ever be anything political to get people this up in arms. Then again, there is something quintessentially political about how she has been treated.

Classic media critique arguments offer that there is as much to learn from what is given the lion’s share of attention from what is not. Perhaps there are countless other events that are wilder craizer and stupider than anyone could ever project or imagine Britney to be—the current health care, educational and military systems immediately come to mind.

You get the feeling that she’s being positioned as, made an example of what you’re not supposed to be (Think of how Jerry Springer’s immensely popular talk show became a site for us to look down on poor/working class peoples). Fat, classless, poor mother, wild, pop tart, crazy, stupid—all signifiers that have either been outwardly said or implied about Spears. Yikes.

Being young and female have not simply made her fair game to be regularly picked apart, they have determined the tone in which it has happened. It’s been quite harsh—when she performs, her body is up for debate. When she does illogical things as a parent, she’s questioned. She cuts her hair and her mental health is questioned. Most of us can’t have a “serious” discussion about her because the mere idea of her is considered silly. A spectacle indeed.

It is not to say that she hasn’t actively participated in this spectacle—clearly, she’s repeatedly made decisions that, in part, have added ignition to her public demise. No, the partying, drinking and drug use probably weren’t wise decisions. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a teen or twenty-something who doesn’t face these same issues, directly or indirectly, as a part of their newly adult lives.

In the same way that professional athletes are simultaneously loved and hated for their entertainment functions and how much they get paid to entertain us, people “hate” Britney now. As if her money should somehow buffer her from these things that frame the rest of our daily, average lives.

In a remarkable blurb in the NY Daily News (10/4/07), Forbes.com was quoted as having analyzed six months of celebrity magazine covers (Us Weekly, Star, etc.) on which Spears appeared on 18. While Jennifer Aniston (another younger, rich and famous blonde white woman)’s face gracing the cover of the mags boosted sales to 5 million copies, apparently Spears causes sales to slump. That this is even the focus of the article speaks volumes about the sort of scrutiny and expectation toward young, blonde women that is acceptable. Would we ever hold any male celebrity to this particular type of scrutiny?

As a black female, I’ve always been somewhat aware of society’s odd, historical relationship with young, blonde, white women. But Britney’s recent travails make it impossible not to notice that there’s something off here. It makes me uncomfortable.

Suddenly, the literal and figurative deaths of Marilyn Monroe, Jon Benet Ramsey, and Anna Nicole Smith make sense. Though the particulars of their lives and deaths vary, in many ways, they were marked as soon as they were born white, blonde and female.

I don’t know that it’s extreme to say that the pop culture machine is “raping” Britney. But as my mom says, “You gotta call a spade a spade.” True, she is being picked apart and dissected because she is a rich celebrity. But the way in which it’s happening is because she is young and female.

And that we simply sit and watch doesn’t help.

tokumbo bodunde
10.04.07

(I played the professor card and made my Racism & Sexism students read it in class)

 

the female experience of racism


I was intrigued when I heard another Black woman use the phrase that is the headline of this article. It sounded different from sexism. And it could just be all words at this point, but whenever I see the larger-than-life ads for Eddie Murphy’s new movie “Norbit,” the phrase rises to the surface again. The ad features two images of Murphy — one as a meek, glasses-donning version of himself and the other as a severely overweight Black woman who’s pinning him down. This particular image of a Black woman is where I have to acknowledge the female experience of racism.

She is the fat, dark-skinned, loud and unattractive bitch. She is positioned in “real” life and in the movie as the opposite of the Thandie Newton-ish slimmer, lighter and sweeter Black woman. She is comic relief. She is who no one, even those of us who are, wants to be. She is undesirable. She has her historical predecessors, from early American television and cinema.

She ain’t new.

Her image, however, consistently gets green-lighted as an appropriate form of comedy for the masses. Comedian Mo’Nique, bless her soul, had a popular television show in which she essentially was that woman — fat, loud and undesirable to the desired man of the show. She has one foot in those old Tom & Jerry cartoons — she’s always screaming. She’s been the character of countless comedic routines for an easy and reliable laugh.

This version of oppression is completely de-politicized, as is anything once you bring being female into the conversation, particularly when it has to do with looks. Be assured though, that if the traditional experience — the male one — of racism were displayed on billboards as if it were comic, the usual suspects would raise hell. When Jesse, Al, and some women, begin marching and addressing a movie like “Norbit,” I’ll believe that we’re getting somewhere.

I don’t know if I can wait for a march though. The mainstream representation, if there ever was one, of the female experience of racism is limited to trite debates where light-skinned and dark-skinned Black women are positioned against each other — à la India Arie/Alicia Keys of a few Grammys past, or Jennifer Hudson/Beyoncé of “Dreamgirls,” or, hell — and this one probably slipped past the radar of most — Angela Bassett/Halle Berry when Bassett explained that she passed on Berry’s “Monster’s Ball” role because she felt it was one of a prostitute.

With these instances as the context, is it any wonder that people might scoff at the notion of “the female experience of racism”? It has been the challenge of Black feminists galore to take on something people don’t realize exists. How do you explain the irony of “Norbit” opening to the number one spot on its first weekend while “Dreamgirls,” a movie that at least attempts to consider different versions of Black womanhood, stood at number 10? Or that “Dreamgirls” has helped restart Murphy’s career, and he follows with “Norbit”? We barely have the tools to consider that, once they are absorbed into the mass media marketplace, there is not much difference between Mo’Nique, Big Momma from the Martin Lawrence movies and Nell Carter from the ’80s sitcom “Gimme a Break.”

It doesn’t make a difference if it’s an actual woman, or men performing in suits, it doesn’t matter if a white person produced the image or not. The totality of these images reaching our eyes and minds via Viacom, GE or Disney all have racist and sexist implications.

It is political. Don’t be fooled by the fact that it seems like this is about looks. It’s not. It’s about humanity and economics, as racism has always been. I know Black women who look like Murphy’s female character Rasputia in “Norbit.” They are all beautiful, complex women who, as a result of real conditions in this world brought on by racism and capitalism, are overweight.

To repeatedly exaggerate us on the big screen as if it were reality and just to entertain everyone is wrong. As is being told in a multitude of ways that being Black, female and overweight is synonymous with being loud, unattractive and undesirable. It is not merely a matter of depoliticized self-esteem. It is an unacceptable, systematic practice of disregarding and disrespecting a significant and specific part of the population.

With the limits that this notion of Black womanhood imposes, everyone misses out. We narrow who we consider for a number of roles, from who we can date to who can lead all of us. So, while a number of us fixate on whether a black or a woman has a shot at the White House, I refuse to act as if we, or our experiences, don’t exist or matter.

tokumbo bodunde
03.08.07