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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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Walking Home

I’ve been on a longer hiatus from making movies than I’d like. Got caught up in a month too many of teaching, non-profiting, and Brooklyning it up. But this might be my inspiration to pick up the camera again. My girl Nuala wrote, directed and edited this piece as a response to the casual sexism young women of color encounter during simple walks down the street:

It speaks to me, loudly, on a number of levels. Especially in this week where I (and probably many others) groaned silently when the Hofstra University student, a young black woman, recanted her widely publicized gang rape story.

It’s the kind of event that’s tailor made for people to gloss over its underlying issues. Ones that can’t be limited to being (justifiably) bothered by her lying. I wondered what made her have sex with four (or 5) guys at once. Or why she couldn’t be honest with her boyfriend about her act, for fear of being labeled a slut.

Regardless of whether or not the sex was consensual, that fear of hers is representative of the narrow spaces–be they literally on the sidewalk or figuratively in our minds–that young women, and young women of color in particular, find ourselves in.

These spaces are partially what Nuala is trying to confront with her video. Systems that underlie men casually labeling women as “bitches” are undoubtedly intertwined with the power dynamics implicit in five men having sex with one woman, with one man videotaping it.

And it’s why experimental art like Nuala’s will always be doubly important–a chance for us to use tools like video and through form and content, challenge existing systems of oppression.

Plus, it’s definitely consensual.

 
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Posted by on September 23, 2009 in Uncategorized

 

Casa Bey

Welcome back Mos. Image courtesy of Hiphoparchive.org

Welcome back Mos. Image courtesy of Hiphoparchive.org

Well, welcome back Mos. Kind of…I’ve seen the ads and trailers for the mailroom movie that I’m not sold on, but maybe I’ll catch it on USA next year. But after weeks of my sister nagging me to look at this video, I gotta give it to you. Extreme, extreme close-up, real minimalist and a vintage sound to boot.  All the things I love.

(I realized the directors, Coodie and Chike, are the ones who directed Kanye’s “Through the Wire” video. They’re on to something.)

 
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Posted by on June 9, 2009 in Uncategorized

 

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To be Ugly & Gifted…

So, it’s not Susan Boyle’s voice that’s wowing people—it’s that someone that ugly could have a voice that beautiful. Simon Cowell was stunned at the contrast; everyone was. I call her ugly to only say explicitly what is, without doubt, implied every single time someone marvels at how she’s “never been kissed” or has “never been on a date.” Sure, Ms. Boyle volunteered this information.  On continuous replay, however, it’s code for ugly and undesirable. (To men primarily, but all of us ultimately.)

Susan Boyle sangin her heart out.

But, lord help me, when she speaks, she seems so herself, so honest, kind of rueful. And in a 7-minute clip, we get a reality contest take on the ugly duckling story.

We like her and she actually is very beautiful—I hope she wins.

 
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Posted by on April 17, 2009 in Uncategorized

 

Solange, Smokey & Obama

Solange Knowles photo from DJ Wonder site

One of my favorite songs of 2008 was “I’ve Decided” by Solange (the much underappreciated younger sister of Beyonce) Knowles.

Weeks ago, while driving around in freezing Chicago, my sisters and I had the song on repeat, LOUD. It took me a minute to figure out why I liked the song so much. The Neptunes-produced single takes the most delicious, feet stomping part of The Supremes’ “Baby Love” and loops it throughout.

Solange’s song–as is evidenced by the video— is very much of this moment, my generation (not sure what we’re being called these days), searching for some kind of identity. Colorful and pastichey, the piece pays homage to all that is in this generation’s cultural image-ination about the political culture of the Motown & beyond era. Quick flashes of raised-fisted Olympians from ’68, Malcolm X, people being water-hosed, Rubik’s cubes spinning, and the Berlin Wall falling appear amid Solange crooning and the stomping beat. To make meaning of the video is work, a student of mine complained.

There’s a clear difference between the display of events being shown in the video for the Smokey Robinson & The Miracles’ “Tears from a Clown.”

Its three sequences reveal a clear narrative of the cultural turmoil and grief experienced by the moments/movements surrounding the JFK and MLK assasinations and the Vietnam War. “Smiling for the public eye,” sings Smokey. “Don’t let my glad expression give you the wrong impression.” Very much a statement of the times–smiling outside but dying inside.

I was born in 1979, a decade plus after those assassinations and a few years post-Vietnam. Smack dab in the birth of hip-hop and advent of an extreme right-wing, fiercely developing global capitalist world (not unrelated phenomena in the least). The stylistic elements of Solange’s song and video are telling, in that they represent how I and most of us under 30 understand the events of Smokey’s song. The song’s pulsating claps and the video’s refusal to distinguish between cultural-poltical turmoil and social fads mute any sadness we might have even had.

It’s all about that beat. Or not. At least, it shouldn’t be. Not in this moment, the simultaneous 50th anniversary of Motown Records and the election of America’s first black president. The final minute of Solange’s video stands in abrupt contrast to the frenetic collage of iconic images of the past 40 years. Slower, more comtemplative and futuristic, its shades of blue-grays lets her imagine (at least in her love life), some other-world type sh*t. What will we do with the equally compelling and troubling elements of the world that we (and Obama) are inheriting?

What was most promising about Obama’s candidacy, in fact, was the spark it produced in our populace, its positioning within the perfect storm of just enough right-wing ridiculousness, contradictions in capitalism, and technological savvy. What a unique political moment. The generation that will come of age in it ranges from being once or twice removed from Motown & Smokey, devoid of the grief of Smokey’s “tears,” yet with an existence and way of looking at the world that has been shaped, in part, by them.

It’ll be critical that we, in our political activity, artistic endeavors, and social relationships, act in this world in a fashion that lets us appreciate the “best” parts of those old songs while keeping in mind the implications of the history and political moments that produced them.

And yeah, I’m gonna be bumping some Solange as we do so.

1-31-09

 

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.