“Go back where you come from!”: Aesthetic identity, “This Land” and “Old Town Road”
Susan McFarlane-Alvarez / Clayton State University


Gary Clark Jr. and Lil Nas X
Gary Clark Jr. and Lil Nas X challenge conventions of race and music genres.

Go back where you come from.
We don’t want, we don’t want your kind…
This land is mine.
– Gary Clark Jr., “This Land”

The generic conventions of popular music historically have been sites of identity negotiation, with discussions focused on the intersection between belonging and race or ethnicity. For scholars of cultural studies, the fact that there is coincidence between political sphere discussion of belonging and popular culture negotiation of belonging comes as no surprise. In July 2019, President Donald Trump admonished four Congresswomen of color to “go back to the countries they came from,” repeating earlier taunts to expatriate those who don’t belong in America because of race or ethnicity, and resurrecting an old trope founded in racism and which has “long, deeply entrenched roots in American history.” The taunt, which suggests that those subjected to it, and others of their kind, are not welcome here, has roots traceable to The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Affirmed by the Federalist Congress, the Acts were passed into law by John Adams, and legislated to classify immigrants and foreigners as a deep threat to American security. The laws provided new enforcement to deport foreigners and made it harder for new immigrants to vote. In fact, in this 1798 context, one Federalist referred to immigrants as, “the turbulent and disorderly of the world.”  More than 220 years later, the resurgent positioning of immigrants, non-white and non-English speaking citizens as both Other, and a threat to the project of reclaiming or retaining America’s greatness cannot be denied.

Not coincidentally, this process of othering spilled from political discourse to discussions of artistic and popular culture expressions. In particular, discussions about the intersections of race and music genres circulated around two songs: “Old Town Road,” by Lil Nas X, and “This Land” by Gary Clark Jr. Both songs and their respective music videos provide commentary on the intersection between race and music genre, and the issue of racial identity and belonging, respectively. Both cultural artifacts are imbued with motifs of expatriation and the Other, and both works offer an opportunity to examine how this resistance to symbolic exile unfolds on three fronts: generic convention, space and national identity.


Gary Clar Jr. on a Southern veranda
Screen pull from “This Land,” with Gary Clark Jr. singing on the verandah of a plantation house.

Released in January 2019, the song “This Land,” by blues-rock musician Gary Clark Jr., builds on Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” but questions the promises made in the popularized version of that 1940 song. While Guthrie’s folk song expresses the American ideal of inclusion, Clark’s homage wails in discord, and unearths the truths long since extracted and interred from the collective construction of Guthrie’s American Dream. Guthrie’s “This Land,” long celebrated as an anthemic tribute to America, has been repositioned as a protest song, particularly through analysis of a lost fourth verse, which criticizes America for falling short of its promise of inclusion. This fourth verse exists both in the original 1940 lyric manuscript, and in a 1944 recording of the song.

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me.

The sign was painted, said: “Private Property.”

But on the backside, it didn’t say nothing.

This land was made for you and me.

The lyrics of “This Land” build on this resistance to exclusion as a response to a real-life incident in which Gary Clark Jr. was confronted on his own 50-acre ranch near Austin, Texas, by a neighbor who told him, “There’s no way you could live here. Who really owns this place?” Clark’s lyrics echo his personal experiences of being black in the American South. “Nigga run, nigga run. Go back where you come from. We don’t want, we don’t want your kind.” The visuals in Clark’s music video for “This Land” are equally powerful in their protest, including the near nonchalance and obliviousness of a young black protagonist looking out the window of a car that drives through country roads, passing confederate flags on mailboxes. In a poignant, everyday sense, blackness in America is set against the context of a landscape designed for exclusion from, and oppression within that landscape. Later in the music video, the same young, black protagonist walks, as if in a trance into the water of a swamp, an action that echoes the tragic actions of Igbo slaves who, in 1803, rather than face the prospect of enslavement had drowned themselves.[ (( Snyder, Terri L. “Suicide, Slavery, and Memory in North America.” The Journal of American History, vol. 97, no. 1, 2010, p. 39.))] He emerges from the dream-swamp into a field, looks up to a rope hanging from a tree, and to a plantation house on whose verandah waves an American flag. Through symbolism of a black snake, cotton, a feather and arrowheads, the music video for “This Land” raises questions of the land and indigenous or native or authentic belonging. Throughout, the video confronts oppression and exclusion with images of black children in dungarees, first standing on confederate flags, later reciting, “this land is mine,” as they stare into a fire, in which burns a confederate flag.


Children stand atop confederate flags in the music video for “This Land” by Gary Clark Jr.

Just prior to the release of “This Land,” “yeehaw-rapper,” Lil Nas X dropped “Old Town Road” via streaming service SoundCloud. The track launched into a social context still sorting through the implications of Unite the Right’s rally for white supremacy in Charlottesville Virginia, during which far-right extremists chanted, “You will not replace us.” The discourse that erupted around reception of “Old Town Road” seemed similarly fraught with racial hatred and ethnophobia, and fear that what belongs to “us” is being taken over by “them.” Responses to “Old Town Road” and the racial identity of Lil Nas X ranged from listener reviews to analysis of industrial strategy, collectively negotiating the terrain of belonging through discussions of genre and style. Billboard Magazine removed the song from the country chart, issuing a statement that it did so because of its trap beat and mixed categorization on streaming services. This removal catalyzed criticism for what appeared to be another instance of the music industry’s sidelining of non-white artists in the country genre.

Lil Nas X and his song quickly became symbolic of negotiating generic conventions. Released in May 2019, the music video for “Old Town Road” along with Lil Nas X’s partnership with Wrangler brought further impetus to negotiate the intersection between blackness and “country.” Lil Nas X’s lyrics implicated the Western apparel company: “Cowboy hats from Gucci/Wrangler on my booty/Can’t nobody tell me nothin’.” The music video pays homage to Western generic conventions with its mise-en-scène inclusion of horse-riding cowboys engaging in gun fights, wearing hats and boots. In the prelude, Lil Nas X says, “Last time I was here, they weren’t too welcoming to outsiders.”  Collaborator Billy Cyrus responds, “It’s you and me this time. Everything’s going to be alright.” Where Lil Nas X might be the outlaw hero, his ascendancy to acceptance rides on Billy Ray Cyrus as official hero, accepted as belonging, and part of the mainstream.


Lil Nas X in Western apparel
Lil Nas X rides into town in the music video for “Old Town Road.”

In his 2002 article, William Roy interrogates the relationship among musical genres, social movements and racial identity, defining aesthetic identity as “the cultural alignment of artistic genres to social groups by which groups come to feel that genres represent ‘our’ or ‘their’ art, music and literature.”[ (( Roy, William G. “Aesthetic Identity, Race, and American Folk Music.” Qualitative Sociology, vol. 25, no. 3, Sept. 2002, pp. 459–469.))] In this way, genre boundaries are not simply industrial distinctions among music charts that represent musical styles and expressions, they are indeed social boundaries. More pointedly, as Roy elucidates, “the sociology of culture is premised on the notion that boundaries between aesthetic genres correspond to social boundaries between groups.”[ (( In particular, see page 460 of the Roy article.))] The negotiation of identity and belonging through discussions of music genre is, in fact, negotiation of social boundaries.

In the second half of the music video, Lil Nas X is transported from the 1800s to present-day Old Town Road, only to realize that he is still the anomaly of a trap-singing black cowboy in a sub-urban environment. In effect, he is an objectified Other, even in the black present-day neighborhood as much as he is in a turn-of-the-century frontier town. By the end of the video, the horse is replaced by a Maserati GranTurismo convertible in which he rides shotgun with Cyrus, and Lil Nas X brings his blinged black cowboy style to an eventually welcoming white, country bingo hall. Lil Nas X has left behind the margins of turn-of-the-century red sand desert and the othering of present-day suburbia to proclaim a new place for blackness and the erosion, or redefinition, of the country frontier.

In both “Old Town Road” and “This Land” lie continued negotiations of three connotations of belonging and country: belonging in country as musical genre, belonging in country as a place held in contrast to city and urban identity, and belonging in country as national identity. Inasmuch as groups adopt and adhere to aesthetic identity and the appropriation of boundaries that are culturally defined, generic distinctions are used to sell products consumed by audiences interpellated by racial, gender, national and sexual identity. Even more importantly though, discourse surrounding genre conventions are not simply used to reinforce generic distinctions, they are actual, tangible manifestations of group identities, boundaries and belonging.



Image Credits:

  1. Gary Clark Jr. and Lil Nas X challenge conventions of race and music genres.
  2. Screen pull from “This Land,” with Gary Clark, Jr. singing on the verandah of a plantation house
  3. Children stand atop confederate flags in the music video for “This Land” by Gary Clark Jr.
  4. Lil Nas X rides into town in the music video for “Old Town Road.”


References:




#NotMyAriel: Safe Race-Swapping and the Casting of a Black Woman as Fish
Shearon Roberts / Xavier University of Louisiana


Casting of Halle Bailey
Halle Bailey announced to be Ariel in Disney’s live-action adaptation of The Little Mermaid.

On the 10-year anniversary of The Princess and the Frog (Clements and Musker, 2009), Disney announced it will offer audiences a second Black princess. Like her predecessor Tiana, she will follow in similar fashion, and instead of being a frog, she will get a slight improvement, she will be a fish, who at least is half-human. The casting of Halle Bailey as the Little Mermaid lit up social media at the end of summer 2019. The hashtag #NotMyAriel trended at the same time as #Tiana, and a line can be connected between the two. Fans of the original 1989 animation claimed the race-swap casting was a loss for redhead representation. Some even resorted to Trumpism slogans demanding to “Make the Little Mermaid Great Again.” Fans of the race-swap argued that there have been three redheads among the princesses: Ariel, Merida, and Anna, despite redheads only accounting for less than two percent of the global population, and Black women, a far larger number.


Diversity check on redhead representation
Fans conduct a diversity check on redhead representation in Disney Princess films

Supporters of Disney’s race-swap argued that Tiana spent over 90-percent of the film as an animal, diminishing audiences the opportunity to be entertained fully by a Black princess. They demanded that it was time Black audiences got a second Black princess. Opponents pointed out that it should be open season on race-swapping and that Tiana, Mulan, and Pocahontas can now be acceptable race-swaps and cast by white actors in live-action remakes.


Diversity check on redhead representation
Fans debated whether non-white Disney princesses can be cast as white in remakes.

The social media back-and-forth descended into a mix of racism, discussions about reverse racism, and oppression Olympics,[ (( Martinez, Elizabeth. “Beyond Black/White: The Racisms of our Times.” Social Justice 20, no. 1/2 (1993): 22–34. ))] but the larger argument missing from the race-swap of The Little Mermaid (Marshall) was that it was safe. In fact, it was the least controversial move Disney could make in its current era of remakes, reboots, sequels, and live-actions that comprise the company’s second revival era.

As 2019 showed, Disney’s global media dominance resulted in record setting economic success. The company bested its previous record in 2016 by earning its total box office revenue by mid-year 2019 with still at least two more potential billion-dollar films to go (Frozen II [Buck and Lee] and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker [Abrams]). In fact, there is evidence in 2019 alone that “safe” race-swapping can bring diverse audiences to the theaters and result in billion dollar success. One glaring race-swap in 2019 was the casting of Genie in Aladdin (Ritchie) as Black (Will Smith). The iconic role was played by Robin Williams, but technically it was not a white man’s role, just a funny man’s role, and the Genie was blue. The race-swap of a racially neutral character meant that Genie could be Black in 2019, and audiences could accept this. Not only would Genie be Black, he would be from the region along the Silk Road, which included North Africa, through the Middle East, and onward to Asia. Therefore, there was nothing controversial about Genie’s race-swap, other than the CGI look of Smith’s blue and whether he could live up to Robin Williams-levels of comedic performance. At the end of the summer, Aladdin returned $1.046 billion at the box office and drew in the global audience Disney hoped it would earn by casting the largest diverse cast it has assembled.

Besting Aladdin in summer 2019 was The Lion King (Favreau) at $1.616 billion, which dethroned 2017’s Beauty and the Beast (Condon) to earn the top spot for Disney’s remakes. The Lion King also had a casting race-swap, although much quieter and expected, as after all, the film features a storyline and setting on the African continent. Where the 1994 original animation barely featured Black voices cast in the lead roles, save for James Earl Jones as Mufasa and Whoopie Goldberg as Shenzi the hyena, the 2019 photo-realistic remake had a predominantly Black voice cast led by Beyoncé and Donald Glover. This was also safe recasting for Disney, as today’s audiences would likely not accept the argument that films with Black (voice) leads would not become global sensations in a post-Black Panther era. Like Genie, the lions, hyenas, and baboon of The Lion King are not human. They are animals or magical beings, and since they are not human, they can be any race, or rather Disney can make a case for what race they should be.

Therefore, Disney’s casting of Halle Bailey, a young, African American singer-songwriter-actress with dreadlocks as the Little Mermaid, is not revolutionary. She will be playing a fish. Although exhibiting human-like features, mermaids are ultimately an evolved form of amphibians, and as Ariel sings, she is an outsider who longs to be “part of that world.” While Disney itself did not weigh in on the controversy, one of its channels, Freeform, schooled critics on the casting choice in a Twitter post titled “An Open Letter to the Poor, Unfortunate Souls.”


Diversity check on redhead representation
Freeform Twitter Post: “An Open Letter to the Poor, Unfortunate Souls,” July 6, 2019.

The Freeform post argued that The Little Mermaid was originally a Danish tale, but that Ariel is set in international waters, and the crab Sebastian is Jamaican. The channel post notes that there are even Black Danes, and that they can also genetically have red hair. However, the most important argument of the Freeform post to audiences is that “the character of Ariel is a work of fiction.” In other words, there is a precedence set for race-swap casting. If a character can be classified as “fiction” or non-human, it passes a threshold for a tolerated race-swap in casting. Likewise, the race-swaps and gender-swaps happening across the Marvel Cinematic Universe also pass this threshold because super-heroes are technically unreal. Like Genie and mer-folk, superheroes are fiction, imagination, and cannot be referenced as real life individuals or traced to historical events. Therefore, the diverse castings of the MCU, like Zendaya Coleman as Mary Jane, or new diverse castings going forward, like Salma Hayek (Ajak) and Lauren Ridloff (Makkari) in The Eternals (Zhao, 2020), fit the test for safe race-swaps for Disney works. It is why few fans agreed with the counter-argument that Tiana, Mulan, or Pocahontas can also be race-swapped because their characters are “real,” as in, based on real, historical figures whose racial identities are known.

This rule-of-thumb allows Disney to hail its woke choices around diverse casting without truly offending traditional audiences. It draws more audiences of color to the theatres to see beloved diverse leads or to root for diverse leads while maintaining traditional Disney-Marvel-Lucasfilm, etc. fans. It has resulted in tentpole experiences and billion-dollar box office records. It allows Disney to sell both Black mermaid and redhead mermaid dolls at the same time. It keeps Disney’s stores, parks, digital streaming services, films, merchandize and series consumed by the widest cross-section of audiences, including all groups and alienating few. What it does not do is move the needle on who audiences consider as cinematic leads. To date, outside of T’Challa and Simba, there is no Black prince or king anywhere among Disney’s studios. Likewise, there has yet to be a major Disney work with a Black woman lead who is elevated to equal status afforded white princesses. In fact, scholars acknowledge that fans of the Disney princess franchise have rated Tiana, Mulan, and Pocahontas as the least desirable and likable princesses.[ (( See Dundes, Lauren, and Madeline Streiff. “Reel Royal Diversity? The Glass Ceiling in Disney’s Mulan and Princess and the Frog.” Societies 6, no. 4 (2016): 35.))] Although Disney has provided diverse princesses their own films, their treatment in these works have rendered them second-class. Or in the case of Moana, in exchange for empowerment, they are not the interest of any man’s affections nor do they seek affection. In order to be a strong woman of color, they must eschew love, at least in Disney works.

Diversifying casting through race-swaps can arguably become token nods to calls for inclusivity in an industry that historically relegated Black and minority actors to sidekicks. However, the choices made to date can be classified as safe and in some cases problematic. The casting of Black women leads with white or non-Black male leads continues an erasure of the Black male as a leading man,[ (( Jackson, Ronald L. Scripting the Black Masculine Body: Identity, Discourse, and Racial Politics in Popular Media. New York: SUNY Press, 2006.))] and perpetuates the desirability of a white male gaze on “othered” women.[ (( Kaplan, E. Ann. Looking for the Other: Feminism, Film and the Imperial Gaze. New York: Routledge, 2012. ))] This occurred in A Wrinkle In Time (DuVernay, 2018), which erased racial difference to the point that all major male-female relationships were racially diverse. On one end, this casting can be considered progressive, imagining a world where love and affection is color-blind. At the same time, Meg Murry (Storm Reid) only accepts her curly hair after Calvin O’Keefe (Levi Miller), her white co-star, insists to her that he likes her natural hair, reminding audiences that the fictional world Meg inhabits still connects to Black women’s real world insecurities around their natural hair and white acceptance of their beauty as the only legitimate kind.

On the other hand, in Black Panther, Okoye snatches her own wig as liberation, and as a strong general, still loves, as she can both lead war and have a relationship with W’Kabi. However, Black Panther stands alone because in creating a fully fleshed out Black nation and civilization, it includes the widest spectrum of Black experiences on screen.[ (( Bowles, Terri P. “Diasporadical: In Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther,” Family Secrets, Cultural Alienation and Black Love.” Markets, Globalization & Development Review 3, no. 2 (2018); Toldson, Ivory A. “In Search of Wakanda: Lifting the Cloak of White Objectivity to Reveal a Powerful Black Nation Hidden in Plain Sight (Editor’s Commentary).” The Journal of Negro Education 87, no. 1 (2018): 1-3.))] This is something that a token, safe attempt at race-swap in a film whose world is shaped by existing hegemonies will struggle to do. And while Wakanda is also fiction, it demonstrates a model for how far films must still go to truly offer more expansive representations of Blackness on screen to wider audiences. In the meantime, offering diverse audiences a Black mermaid is giving them one chair at a table while Disney cashes in from the meal. It leaves diverse viewers at least full for now but wishing the meal had more salt.



Image Credits:

  1. Halle Bailey announced to be Ariel in Disney’s live-action adaptation of The Little Mermaid.
  2. Fans conduct a diversity check on redhead representation in Disney princess films.
  3. Fans debated whether non-white Disney princesses can be cast as white in remakes.
  4. Freeform Twitter Post: “An Open Letter to the Poor, Unfortunate Souls,” July 6, 2019.


References:




A Bachelorette F***ing in a Windmill
Matthew H. Brittingham / Emory University


Hannah Sends Luke Home.

Season 15 of ABC’s reality TV show The Bachelorette (2003-present) had an interesting scene late in the season: bachelorette Hannah Brown of Tuscaloosa, AL and contestant Luke Parker of Gainesville, GA had a very intense discussion about sex, faith, and the Fantasy Suite. The Fantasy Suite is a luxurious room where the bachelor or bachelorette, if they so desire, can become intimate with contestants. It is a staple of the show when the number of contestants has been cut to the last few. Luke, a kind of villain character on the show who took Hannah to his hometown church in one scene, sat with Hannah over dinner and appeared to call into question the consistency of Hannah’s beliefs, if she were to invite contestants into the Fantasy Suite. Hannah, also a professing Christian, took offense, “you’re judging me and feel like you have the right to when you don’t at this point… guess what, sex might be a sin outside of marriage, but pride is a sin too. I feel like this is a pride thing… I’m a grown woman and can make my own decisions.” Luke again and again tried to backtrack, but his own foot had moved past his mouth and was already entering his stomach. She rejected the idea that, in her words, “you would not think of me as a woman of faith like I am.” Right before pushing Luke into the limousine and basically off the show, she said something that caused a public stir, “I have had sex… and Jesus still loves me.” She then followed this statement by saying that she has already had sex with another contestant on the show… in a windmill no less. In an interspliced interview, she turned to the camera and said “I didn’t just go to the Fantasy Suite, I f***ed in a windmill. And guess what, we did it a second time,” winking at the camera after this last line. The whole situation and conversation between Hannah and Luke was awkward and clearly Luke did not want to leave the show—he tried to convince her to hear him out multiple times.

The exchange immediately spilled onto social media and occupied the news for the next several weeks. There were earlier signs that Hannah was clearly a Christian while also not being a holier-than-thou stereotype of a Christian. In the first episode of the show the viewer sees Hannah pray to God for strength before meeting the bachelors. Later in the first episode, after it is revealed that one of the bachelors has a girlfriend back at home, we hear Hannah dropping bleeped out words left and right. In the exchange with Luke above, we hear the same—talking about how Jesus loves her moments before discussing f***ing in a windmill. For the Bachelor/Bachelorette series in particular, this was new territory. In a broader sense, however, religion has been present on reality TV since its near-beginning, and it continues to be a force. There was little new about that part of the spectacle. As some scholars who have written about religion and reality TV would say, it was a classic moment of where “Reality television turns intimate moments of prayer, confession, ecstasy and sin into spectacle” (Einstein, Winston, and Madden p. 8).


Hannah and Luke’s Twitter Battle.

Everybody wanted to participate in the spectacle as Hannah’s sexuality and its connection to Christian piety or impiety, depending on one’s perspective, brought forth boos and cheers. It was a media rose ceremony of sorts. Conversations about Hannah’s faith and position on sex before marriage ranged from The American Conservative to Fox News to The Daily Beast to NPR, with all the types of responses one could imagine. She was supported and attacked in all the normal venues for these kinds of conversations as well — Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. In an interview with People Hannah talked about how “soul-crushing” it was to hear some people say that she “misrepresent being a Christian.” Instead, she affirmed that she “can be a woman of faith and also be sex-positive.” Today reported, quoting Hannah, that “In fact, as ‘an imperfect human, who is yes, also a Christian,’ she believes she’s a good representation of the redemptive nature of her faith.” In an NPR interview, Hannah stated, “It’s tough, because my faith is really important to me, and I do know the Bible, and I do know what it says, and I still stand by what I said. But a lot of people will try to sway what it actually means.” In this same interview, she talked about her background and why the conversation with Luke really irked her:

And I used to carry a lot of shame because I had had sex before. And in that moment, [being questioned by Luke P.], I felt like I was right back in church, just feeling like I was not enough. And that’s what I meant. Well you know what, I have had sex, but, like, I know my relationship with the Lord, I know that he forgives me. He loves me. And I’m not alone in that.

Along with many, many interviews with other media outlets, Hannah posted her own Instagram response to the vile slut-shaming comments she received. The Instagram post likewise became a place where her defenders could rally around her cause.

The media depiction of Hannah’s Christianity and sexuality, as well as her self-portrayal, is notable given trends in American Christianity. Having felt judged and having carried shame in a church she once attended, she framed herself, and was also framed by media commentators, as a “sex-positive” Christian. Certainly, in terms of shame, sex, and church, heavy criticism has been poured on conservative Christian purity culture, a culture with which Hannah appears to be at odds. Hannah, rather, framed her sense of spirituality as a personal relationship with God, a relationship that, in her words, contrasted with once “just feeling like I was not enough” in church. The contrast of shame/sex-positive is still in some ways a reinscription of old fuddy-duddy stereotypes about certain Christians, as if conservative Christians are sex-negative or don’t like having sex (for example, see: ­Williams 2013). Actually, scholar Kelsy Burke (2016) has shown that conservative Christians love talking about sexual pleasure, placed within certain boundaries of course. On the other hand, Burke’s research does indeed show the opposite too: there are negative Christian messages about sexual pleasure from religious leaders who seek to define the boundaries of who should be doing what, where, and with whom. In American Christianity, these constantly negotiated boundaries have complex histories, both on the more conservative and more liberal side of the bed.

In her self-representation, Hannah further tapped into longstanding religious rhetoric of potential transgression and imperfection. She called herself a person who had “slipped” and “wasn’t perfect,” despite her positive relationship with God. Luke actually tapped into the same rhetoric when he responded to what happened between Hannah and himself. He wrote on Instagram, “our conversations and our beliefs led me to believe we were on the same page about sex… As for my time on the show I made mistakes and no I’m not perfect (crazy right) I didn’t totally behave as the man I want to be and I did not represent Christ the way I thought I was prepared to and that has broken me.” [The feud over sex and religion was ongoing too…]. The representation of Christians with two different views of sex is not necessarily new, but it is interesting in light of how Hannah and various media outlets were able to frame the clash in terms of a devout Christian who is “sex-positive” and on a not yet completed faith journey. The spectacle of Hannah and Luke’s conversation might leave a little to be desired for viewers who want a more definitive position from the bachelorette heroine, whichever way that may be. Regardless, the rhetorical work allowed many viewers to treat Hannah sympathetically, even if they did not totally agree with her. It is this small taste of cloudiness surrounding the fairly well manicured reality TV world that provides just enough titillation and just enough distance from completion to keep viewers coming back. This is not perhaps what critic Michael Warner called “‘the agony’ of ‘choosing between the orgasm and religion” (cited in Burke, p. 3), rather it is the tense agony of having a bit of both without being completely satisfied.



Image Credits:

  1. Hannah Sends Luke Home.
  2. Hannah and Luke’s Twitter Battle.


References:

Kelsy Burke, Christians Under Covers: Evangelicals and Sexual Pleasure on the
Internet
. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2016.

Mara Einstein, Katherine Madden, Diane Winston (eds.). Religion and Reality TV: Faith in Late Capitalism. New York: Routledge, 2018.

Daniel K. Williams, “Sex and the Evangelicals: Gender Issues, the Sexual Revolution, and Abortion in the 1960s,” in American Evangelicals and the 1960s, Axel R. Schäfer (ed.). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2013.​




Nomi/No Me?: Race, Gender, and Power in No Time To Die
Lisa Funnell / University of Oklahoma


The first Black female 007
Lashana Lynch, the first Black female 007.

James Bond has been an icon of global popular culture for nearly six decades. While the superspy is known for his ability to ensure the physical safety and geopolitical security of the UK and its allies like the US, the figure is also largely defined by his privilege. As a white, cis-gender, heterosexual, upper-middle class, able-bodied British man, Bond utilizes his privilege to access places, resources, information, and even people for professional and personal benefit. The series has long been criticized for not only depicting but at times also celebrating the espousal of discriminatory sentiments (i.e. sexist, racist, heterosexist, classist, ableist, xenophobic) that naturalize and justify Bond’s maintenance of privilege as he embarks on colonizing missions around the world.

While the longevity of the Bond series—with 24 films released between 1962 and 2016—renders it a unique case study, the franchise, like many other film series, has continually responded to social[ (( Funnell, Lisa. “Negotiating Shifts in Feminism: The ‘Bad’ Girls of James Bond.”Women on Screen: Feminism and Femininity in Visual Culture. Ed. Melanie Waters. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2011. 199-212.))] and political changes[ (( Black, Jeremy. The Politics of James Bond: From Fleming’s Novels to the Big Screen. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.))] as well industry trends[ (( Chapman, James. Licence to Thrill: A Cultural History of the James Bond Films. New York: Columbia, 2000.))] in order to remain viable in the global film market. This is most apparent in our current “billion dollar blockbuster” era with Bond producers going to great lengths to ensure the success of their forthcoming film, No Time to Die (Fukunaga, 2020), such as firing director Danny Boyle and hiring scriptwriter Phoebe Waller-Bridge at the prompting of actor Daniel Craig. As signaled by these actions, the success of a Bond film has long been attributed to the actor playing the coveted role. This is reflected in the typology governing the series whereby films are categorized into eras based on the tenure of the star (e.g. the Connery era). While media speculation over “who will be the next James Bond” is nothing new for the seasoned franchise, the dialogue surrounding the casting for No Time to Die has been particularly volatile.

In the era of social media, the voices of (potential) viewers and critics, and especially those who dissent, can be amplified through the processes of “liking” and “sharing” posts online. Recently, some users have embarked on campaigns aimed at inundating social media platforms and especially movie review websites with enough negative comments to diminish the appeal of films, at times even before they have been released. These campaigns often target projects utilizing casting strategies that promote diversity on screen such as “gender swapping” in Ghostbusters (Feig, 2016) and “race swapping” in The Little Mermaid (Marshall). The sexist and racist vitriol fueling this “backlash” highlights the desire of “core audiences” to maintain the status quo by precipitating the financial failure of these remakes thus discouraging such “diversity tactics.”


Ghostbusters rebooted with women in lead roles
Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, released in 2016, is a female-casted reboot of the original 1984 film.

The announcement of the 25th Bond installment was met with a flurry of media speculation about who would play the lead role. A few actors even threw their hats into the ring. Idris Elba and Gillian Anderson elicited the greatest reactions ranging from overwhelming support to calls for boycotting the series with all commentary centering on how each actor differed in one way from the status quo—via race (Bond as a black man) and gender (Bond as a white woman) respectively. This type of essentializing is common in Hollywood action films, which have historically been the bastion of white male privilege.[ (( Dyer, Richard. White: Essays on Race and Culture. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.))] Only a small proportion of films features marginal figures as heroes—most often black men and white women—who are presented through an “explanatory narrative” that frames them as being “exceptions to the rule.”[ (( Funnell, Lisa. Warrior Women: Gender, Race, and the Transnational Chinese Action Star. New York: SUNY Press, 2014.))] As a result, they are granted temporary access to the space of physical action while the norm (of heroism) remains largely coded through white masculinity. When Craig (finally) signed on for his fifth film, conversations about race, gender, and power in the Bond franchise largely halted on social media platforms.


description of image
Idris Elba and Gillian Anderson throwing their hats into the ring to be the next 007.

The recent casting announcement by Bond producers that Lashana Lynch, a black woman, would be playing agent 007 in No Time to Die unleashed a tidal wave of commentary that included both racist and sexist statements. While some of the negative reactions are rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of her role—Bond (Craig) has retired from the service and his agent number has been reassigned to Nomi (Lynch)—this does not explain or excuse the discriminatory tone and tenor of the comments.


Lashana Lynch in Captain Marvel
Lashana Lynch in Captain Marvel (Boden and Fleck, 2019).

On the one hand, Nomi is the first black woman to hold a “license to kill” in the Bond franchise. Similar to Bond, Nomi has completed the elite training program and earned her position at MI6. As such, she is more like Bond (i.e., the heroic status quo) rather than an exception to the rule, and her role in No Time to Die challenges the longstanding tradition of defining heroism as white and male in the action genre. The Bond franchise in particular has a long history of depicting racial minorities and especially women of color in limited and stereotypical ways.[ (( Funnell, Lisa. “Objects of White Male Desire: (D)Evolving Representations of Asian women in Bond Films.” For His Eyes Only: The Women of James Bond. Ed. Lisa Funnell. New York: Columbia, 2015. 79-87. ))] From Rosie Carver (Gloria Hendry) in Live and Let Die (Hamilton 1973) to May Day (Grace Jones) in A View to A Kill (Glen, 1985), black women are frequently hypersexualized and presented as disposable figures.[ (( Wagner, Travis. “‘The Old Ways Are Best’: The Colonization of Women of Color in Bond Films.” For His Eyes Only: The Women of James Bond. Ed. Lisa Funnell. New York: Columbia, 2015. 51-59. ))] While Skyfall (Mendes, 2012) features Naomi Harris as Eve Moneypenny, thus adding greater diversity to Bond’s inner circle at MI6, she is introduced as a defunct field agent who is demoted for botching a mission and accidentally shooting Bond[ (( Shaw, Kristin. “The Politics of Representation: Disciplining and Domesticating Miss Moneypenny in Skyfall.” For His Eyes Only: The Women of James Bond. Ed. Lisa Funnell. New York: Columbia 2015. 70-78. ))]; unlike Bond who is given a redemption narrative in Skyfall and other films after making mistakes, Moneypenny is encouraged to take a desk job (and told by Bond that “fieldwork is not for everyone”). While the casting of Lynch suggests Nomi’s success in the field, it is hard to see a pathway for her character that does not center on her incompetence or disposability if Bond, who is being called out of retirement, is to end the film with his original agent number. While progressive on the casting front, No Time to Die (much like Skyfall) might be regressive in its representation of women of color.


Naomie Harris in Skyfall (Mendes 2012).

On the other hand, Nomi has been given the number long associated with the identity and brand of Bond. While Craig’s Bond, throughout his tenure, has been depicted as both familiar (via references to previous Bond films) and older/classic, especially in Skyfall,[ (( Dodds, Klaus. “Shaking and Stirring James Bond: Age, Gender, and Resilience in Skyfall (2012).” Journal of Popular Film and Television 42.3 (2014): 116-130. ))] Nomi is less familiar (in both the Bond series and action films at large) and a member of a next generation essentially replacing the “old guard.” As a black woman, the casting of Lynch alone challenges of the legacy of white masculinity and its connection to British identity in the Bond series. Negative reactions to this might be reflective of a broader sense of uneasiness in the UK (manifested through Brexit) as well as the US (via immigration “reform” in the Trump era) about the changing demographics of the populace and anxieties about “white male replacement.” This is where nationality intersects in powerful ways with race and gender as British (as well as American) identity in popular consciousness has long been framed in relation to white masculinity. As such, the social media backlash, particularly by white men, to the casting of Nomi as 007 (who can be understood here as “no me”) might be tapping into broader concerns about the rising social status of racial minorities and women who continue to claim more institutional and economic power. Social media thus becomes a new/digital battleground for the expression of distain over the loss of privilege in the real world as it is being reflected through film.


Daniel Craig as 007
Daniel Craig as 007.

While blockbuster films like No Time to Die as well as the (social) media commentary surrounding them is often dismissed as “only entertainment,” it is important to recognize the role that popular culture plays in shaping popular, populist, and even nativist consciousness. Culture binds individuals and institutions together through its justification and normalizing of privilege. Films like No Time to Die relay messages about identity and power that influence the way people see themselves, each other, and the world around them. There is a lot (more) at stake as film producers try to appease and entice viewers as they compete for maximum ticket sales in the “billion dollar blockbuster” market. Thus, in the era of social media, where individuals and “digital swarms” can potentially undermine the financial success of a film, it is imperative that we explore how the experience of losing privilege, which is often misinterpreted as a form of oppression (i.e. “white male replacement”), is fueling digital backlash campaigns aimed at dismantling “diversity practices” in an attempt to control (popular) culture and (re)establish white male privilege in the symbolic realm (from “no me” to “yes only me”) in order to maintain the institutional and symbolic status quo.



Image Credits:

  1. Lashana Lynch, the first Black female 007.
  2. Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, released in 2016, is a female-casted reboot of the original 1984 film.
  3. Idris Elba and Gillian Anderson throwing their hats into the ring to be the next 007. (Author’s screen grabs)
  4. Lashana Lynch in Captain Marvel (Boden and Fleck 2019).
  5. Naomie Harris in Skyfall (Mendes 2012).
  6. Daniel Craig as 007. (Author’s screen grab from Skyfall)


References:




Television is Burning: Revolutionary Queer and Trans Representation on TV
Danielle Seid / Baruch College, CUNY


Angelica Ross in Pose GIF
Angelica Ross burning up the screen as Candy Ferocity on FX’s Pose.

2019 continues recent worrisome political trends and the threat of planetary and world systems collapse. The summer months were the hottest on record, causing an alarming amount of the remaining ice on the planet to melt; meanwhile, in politics, right-wing populism and authoritarianism have shown little indication of slowing down. Given such existential urgency, how do we measure and value progressive mainstream televisual entertainment? Does representation even matter in a world that may soon be unlivable for humans?

In the midst of so much social and political turmoil, one television series, FX’s Pose (2018-present), shines bright precisely because it depicts, with tenderness and compassion, lives that have for too long been rendered seemingly unlivable: the lives of black and brown queer and trans people. Heavy on pathos but with regular doses of camp and sheer joy, Pose puts a spotlight on queer/trans community in NYC’s ballroom scene of the 1980s and 90s. The backdrop for the show is the HIV/AIDS crisis and subsequent queer activism, as well as the conservative yuppie politics of the 1980s that further dismantled the US welfare state and resulted in concerted attacks on poor urban communities. The series centers on two houses—the House of Evangelista and the House of Abundance—and their catty infighting, but this plot device is in many ways subordinated to the series’ exploration of the intricacies of sex work, trans fetishization and dating, gender transition, HIV care, homophobia, and gender and racial discrimination. Under the guidance of their femme mothers, the self-selected families on the show offer refuge in an unforgiving world. In irresistibly entertaining fashion, the show presents the kind of queer utopia and horizon the late José Esteban Muñoz envisioned in his 2009 book Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity.

Given the ever-increasing attention both to trans issues and the politics of mainstream representation, this brief article asks: How does a show like Pose embody the demand for diversity and inclusivity in media industries today? What developments and breakthroughs have made a show like Pose possible? Finally, what does revolutionary queer and trans representation on TV look like? And who is helping to usher in this revolutionary moment in TV?


Janet Mock talks to Actors on set
Co-executive producer, Janet Mock, one of the strong creative forces behind Pose.

Both on screen and behind the camera, Pose, co-executive produced by Ryan Murphy and Janet Mock, exemplifies the most progressive trends in television today. The category is Trans Casting and Trans Production. Pose stars a group of trans and queer of color actors, the majority of whom are new faces on TV—including MJ Rodriguez, Billy Porter, Indya Moore, Dominique Jackson, Angelica Ross, Angel Bismark Curiel, Ryan Jamaal Swain, Dyllón Burnside, and Hailie Sahar. While recurring trans and gender-nonconforming characters appear on a range of TV programs in 2019, Pose stands out for the simple fact that trans of color performers dominate the cast. So much of the show’s critical success, though, belongs to Janet Mock, a former People magazine columnist and author of the memoir Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More. Since Mock first disclosed her trans status in an article for People in 2011, she has been a fierce advocate for trans issues and rights in the public eye. Many TV viewers were introduced to Mock in 2014 when she verbally sparred with Piers Morgan on his TV talk show about trans identity and popular (mis)understandings about sex and gender. For readers of Redefining Realness, Mock’s presence is undeniable in the characters and situations on Pose, especially in the character Angel’s tense ordeal with a fashion photographer intent on exploiting trans femme sexuality and vulnerability. In addition to Mock’s work on the show, Pose sets a high bar for having a diverse writer’s room, a host of queer and trans directors, and a sensitivity to the need for consulting queer and trans people who directly experienced the ballrooms and who hail from the communities portrayed on screen.

Nearing the end of its second season, Pose “poses” questions that are not only relevant in 2019 but also long overdue in popular and political discourse. The category is Trans Activism. As of September 2019, eighteen trans people (the vast majority being Black trans women) in the US have been murdered this year—their names to be added to the list of trans lives to be remembered on November 20 for the annual trans day of remembrance. Such statistics exist in tandem with the kinds of self-congratulatory data that watchdog media organizations like GLAAD publish on LGBTQ televisual representation. In fact, for the 2018-2019 season, the uptick in regular and recurring trans characters and LGBTQ people of color on television can largely be attributed to Pose. Like other contemporary trans representations on TV, Pose builds on the work of recent trans activism, labor, and visibility within popular media industries. The show, moreover, speaks directly and emphatically to transphobic elements in contemporary culture and politics, the latest being Trump’s pursuit of legalized trans discrimination in the workplace.


CeCe McDonald and Laverne Cox
CeCe McDonald and Laverne Cox, leveraging mainstream trans representation for activist ends.

Only a few years ago, a show like Pose might have seemed unimaginable for broadcast television. In 2014, Orange Is The New Black (Netflix, 2013-19) actress and activist Laverne Cox, hailed as a pioneer for trans people working in television, appeared on the cover of TIME Magazine as the face of the so-called “transgender tipping point.” Cox and other trans celebrities raise the paradox of trans visibility—that is, what are the limits of trans visibility for effecting change? And at what costs to individuals does trans visibility come? In 2016, Cox seized the opportunity to leverage her newfound celebrity for activist ends when she teamed up with and brought media attention to CeCe McDonald, a black trans woman who accepted a plea deal for second-degree manslaughter after she fought off a man who violently attacked her outside a bar in Minneapolis. Both Cox and Mock demonstrate how mainstream representation and trans activism can collide and yield positive results. For now, busy with Pose and her recently-announced multi-year Netflix deal, a first for a trans woman, Mock has focused her energies on producing, writing, and directing. Her creative contributions on Pose emphasize hope, love, and community in the face of systemic violence.

Even the most cynical “armchair critics” have embraced Pose. The show breaks through barriers in a culture and medium long beholden to white, cis, heteropatriarchal norms, but the show also challenges the dominance of white, cis, gay televisual representation. As with most television programming, Pose portrays kinship and community, and the black and brown love and romance on the show feels revolutionary. Moreover, the ballroom community on the series bears the weight of racial history that calls out for attention in 2019. It is the weight of such history that sets it apart from Murphy’s earlier “queer-themed” TV series Glee (Fox, 2009-15) and the white, middle-class gay sensibilities of the “queen of gay TV” Ellen DeGeneres. Ultimately, Pose is about working-class struggle and the realities of American racial capitalism. The category is Live and Survive. This perspective is sorely needed on television and in popular discourse. For black and brown trans people in the U.S., U.S. imperial contact zones, and other areas where racial-colonial legacies mix with patriarchal structures and machismo, the refrain “it gets better,” all too common in mainstream gay discourse, has never or weakly resonated. Pose manages to confront the violence of the dominant sex/gender system and the glaring racism and brutality of US capitalism without falling back on too-easy narratives of aspirational social climbing. On the series, the characters’ tenacity and their tragedies implicitly criticize the ways in which the mainstream gay rights movement has marginalized and left behind trans people, especially trans people of color.


Paris Is Burning 1990
Remembering Venus Xtravaganza and Paris Is Burning.

One recent standout episode of Pose that exemplifies the show’s commitment to representing poor trans of color struggle is “Never Knew Love Like This Before,” a title borrowed from Stephanie Mills’ R&B hit song of the same name. The episode calls to mind the tragic circumstances surrounding Venus Xtravaganza, one of the main figures from Paris is Burning, the 1990 documentary about the ballroom scene directed by Jennie Livingston. In the episode, Candy Ferocity, played by the brilliant Angelica Ross, lives, fiercely, beyond the violence that regularly extinguishes the lives of poor black and brown trans women. Although violence against trans women of color, and especially those who perform sex work, can appear trite, Pose celebrates Candy and gives her star treatment.

In 2019, there are certainly many TV representations that deserve recognition for storytelling highlighting people of color and redressing the long history of televisual underrepresentation of “minority” groups. For queer and trans of color representation, though, and communities of color long neglected by TV and media industries and exploited by American racial capitalism, Pose is tens across the board. Television is burning and we are all better off for it.



Image Credits:

  1. Angelica Ross burning up the screen as Candy Ferocity on FX’s Pose.
  2. Co-executive producer, Janet Mock, one of the strong creative forces behind Pose. (From Variety)
  3. CeCe McDonald and Laverne Cox, leveraging mainstream trans representation for activist ends. (From Takepart)
  4. Remembering Venus Xtravaganza and Paris Is Burning. (From Variety)




Strangers: Using the Small Screen to Expose Mainlandization
Andrew Gilmore / Colorado State University


The revealing look at mainlandization in Amazon’s Strangers (2018- ).

Set in Hong Kong, Strangers (titled White Dragon when the series appeared on Amazon Prime in early 2019) tells the story of British university lecturer Jonah Mulray. Without divulging too much of the plot, upon hearing that his wife, Megan, has been killed in a car crash in Hong Kong, Mulray travels to the city to repatriate her body. Arriving in Hong Kong, Mulray makes two shocking discoveries. Shock one: Mulray is not Megan’s only husband. Shock two: his wife’s death may not have been an accident.

After the airing of the first two episodes of the eight-part crime drama, Guardian features writer Sam Wollaston’s jocular three star review of the series focused on its plot holes and how the story compared to his own life in London. While Wollaston found Strangers to be “intriguing,” he didn’t feel that it stood “up to too much scrutiny.” I beg to differ.

Set against the backdrop of a shady police force, corrupt politicians, Western journalists attempting to uncover the truth, and teenage Hong Kongers intent on showing their distain for the city’s “democratic” process, Strangers’ plot of murder and betrayal turns into a story of whodunit and, importantly, why did they do it.

In light of its narrative, like Wollaston, I find Strangers to be an intriguing piece of television. As somebody who studies Hong Kong, however, a closer examination of the series reveals more. Strangers is a fascinating media text that attempts to expose the mainlandization of Hong Kong to a global audience.[ (( Since Hong Kong was handed back to China in July 1997, the citizens of Hong Kong have increasing felt the effects of the mainlandization of their city. To be more specific, in a now-deleted post (possibly providing more evidence of mainlandization), Cheong defines mainlandization as “the erosion of freedom, plurality, tolerance, and rule of law.” David Gruber, meanwhile, characterizes the term as “the encroaching influence” of mainland China. I define mainlandization, simply, as the erosion of human rights in Hong Kong. For more information, see David R. Gruber, “A Beijing Wolf in Hong Kong: Lufsig and Imagining Communities of Political Resistance to Chinese Unification,” in Imagining China: Rhetorics of Nationalism in an Age of Globalization, Edited by Stephen J. Hartnett, Lisa, B. Keranen, and Donovan Conley, 371-394. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2017.))] In short, I argue that Wollaston failed to join the dots and look behind Strangers’ basic plot.

On the eve of Hong Kong’s 1997 return to Chinese rule, Britain’s then-prime minister, John Major, promised Hong Kongers that, despite the city’s impending return to the Communist Party of China (CPC), the city would “never walk alone.” The CPC had other ideas. Whether commenting on Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Revolution, the city’s current Hard Hat Revolution, China’s territorial control of the South China Sea, or its use of Uighur Muslim “re-education camps,” nations, including Britain and the U.S., have fallen foul of the CPC’s curt warnings that they have no place “meddling” in China’s domestic affairs.


Hong Kong protestors please
Hong Kong protesters plead for international assistance during the 2019 protests.

Returning to Hong Kong, over the past two decades, the concerns of British officials have been continuously rebuked by the CPC. While British politicians have repeatedly suggested that “Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy is under increasing pressure,” the CPC has been quick to emphasize that, since Hong Kong was returned to Chinese rule, “Britain has no power to intervene” in the city’s internal affairs.

In light of being warned not to comment on the events in Hong Kong, how else can the plight of Hong Kongers be communicated to a mass global audience? Perhaps, through the commission of a TV crime series set in the city. Behind its surface plotline, Strangers is littered with references to the mainlandization of Hong Kong that Wollaston may have missed.


Depictions of Mainlandization

A major facet of the perceived mainlandization of Hong Kong—and the catalyst that led to the outbreak of the 2014 Umbrella Revolution, as well as the recent and ongoing Hard Hat Revolution—is the CPC’s insistence on choosing candidates for the role of the city’s chief executive. In Wollaston’s review of Strangers, he draws attention to the character Xiaodong Xo, “a property developer” that Hong Kong students “do not approve of.” As a clear representation of Hong Kong’s former Chief Executive CY Leung, however, Wollaston’s dismissal of Xo’s character is an oversight.

Throughout his time in office, Leung—himself a former real estate consultant—was plagued by controversy and
accusations of shady business dealings, illicit wealth, and deep CPC roots, all
of which draw Leung closer to the character of Xo. In Strangers, the
company headed by Xo plans to build luxury apartments on a site that is
intended for affordable housing. This element of Strangers’ narrative is not randomly placed. Instead, it highlights
another facet of
mainlandization: A lack of affordable housing available to average Hong
Kongers.

As Hong Kong’s property market continues to be a popular place for “rich mainlanders… to park their money,” the city has spent the last decade as the world’s least affordable place to live. With Hong Kong’s median property price over 20 times that of median household income, as a direct result of mainlandization, large swathes of Hong Kongers can simply no longer afford to reside in their own city. In extreme cases, Hong Kongers are reduced to residing in “wire mesh cages” and “coffin homes” that are too small for inhabitants to fully stretch out their legs.


Hong Kong not China banner
This is Hong Kong, not China.

As documented cases of police and judicial corruption—often attributed to mainlandization—increase in Hong Kong, Strangers’ narrative that includes a body missing from a morgue, unauthorized cremations, the doctoring of police evidence, and police protection of a known murderer communicates further facets of mainlandization. In the midst of all this drama, however, Strangers narrates the story of mainlandization in a thoughtful way that is often lacking in media texts that depict Asian culture.


Identity and Representation to (Re)Raise Awareness

While recent movies such as Ghost in the Shell (Sanders, 2017) and Crazy Rich Asians (Chu, 2018) have been accused of whitewashing, stereotyping, misrepresentation, and flawed depictions of Asian culture, Strangers impresses by casting a number of local, Hong Kong actors. Moreover, the use of Cantonese—Hong Kong’s language that is being slowly eroded as a result of mainlandization—adds another important and, perhaps, overlooked element to the plot. Strangers, then, showcases issues in Hong Kong and, vitally, does so by providing a platform for Hong Kongers to tell their own stories about mainlandization.

While I argue that Wollaston failed to join
the dots in his reading of Strangers,
this isn’t really part of his job. He watched the series for what it is: a fun,
suspenseful, and, at times, far-fetched crime drama. A closer reading, however,
reveals that commissioned TV drama’s such as Strangers can lead the way in providing a slightly more accurate
portrays of Asian culture and, at the same time, shine a light on authoritarian
regimes that continue to exert their influence over minorities.

Reviewing Strangers for online magazine Bustle, Jack O’Keeffe writes that the series isn’t based on a true story. While the surface plot may or may not be true, the overarching themes that play out in the background of Strangers are based on a very true story: the mainlandization of Hong Kong.

With almost half a decade passing since the outbreak of the Umbrella Revolution and the global press coverage that it attracted, until this summer, the plight of Hong Kongers was a fleeting moment that had been forgotten by many. When waiting to get my hair cut earlier this this year (before the recent spate of Hong Kong protests), a man sat next to me struck up a conversation about what I studied. “Oh yeah,” he responded. “The yellow umbrella protest! I’d forgot about that!” A few days later, I was in an Uber and my driver posed the same question. “So, Hong Kong got what it wanted, yeah? They won?” People need reminding about Hong Kong’s fight for democracy, but communication channels need to be chosen wisely.

When writing about the media and politics, communication technology scholar Manuel Castells states that politics has become a “tragicomedy motivated by greed, backstage maneuvers, betrayals, and, often, sex and violence.”[ (( Manuel Castells, “Materials for an Exploratory Theory of the Network Society,” British Journal of Sociology 51, no. 1 (2000): 13.))] Castells could be describing the plot of Strangers. Indeed, for Castells, politics is “increasingly indistinguishable from TV scripts.”[ (( Castells, 13.))] The issues faced by Hong Kongers, though, are not fiction; they continue to be very real. In an age when the CPC ties the hands of “meddling” politicians and journalists, Strangers can aid in ensuring that the situation in Hong Kong does not fade from public memory and discourse.

As has been witnessed over the past few months, Hong Kong’s fight continues, as does the battle faced by politicians and print journalists who seek to communicate concerns about the CPC’s handling of its disputed territories. As I write this, on-street protests have been taking place in Hong Kong for the last 15 weeks and they show no sign of abating. Moreover, protests in Hong Kong are more violent than ever. However, when the protesters leave the streets, either through fatigue or military force, the issues faced by Hong Kongers must remain in the public realm. To this end, a TV series commissioned by the UK’s biggest commercial broadcaster that (re)draws attention—however implicitly—to Hong Kong can only be a boon to the city as it continues to feel the “heavy hand” of the CPC.


“Glory to Hong Kong”: the city’s 2019 protest anthem.



Image Credits:

  1. The revealing look at mainlandization in Amazon’s Strangers (2018- ).
  2. Hong Kong protesters plead for international assistance during the 2019 protests. ©Andrew Gilmore, 2019
  3. This is Hong Kong, not China. © Andrew Gilmore, 2019
  4. “Glory to Hong Kong”: the city’s 2019 protest anthem.


References:




In Toon with the Times: Diversity in American Commercial Animation
Mihaela Mihailova / University of Michigan


Diversity in new animation
Contemporary series bringing diversity to animation.

In December 2016, The Hollywood Reporter published a roundtable on the topic of “avoiding ethnic stereotypes and how to ‘break the mold’ of princesses” in the animation industry featuring seven White men. The backlash was instantaneous, addressing the inherent absurdity of inviting this particular group of “top toon creators” to reflect on questions of diversity and highlighting the glaring omission of obvious candidates such as Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who directed Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011) and co-directed its sequel, or Gina Shay, who produced Trolls (2016). While this animation “manel” is part of a larger problem, it is directly indicative of systemic issues in the American animation industry, wherein women make up only 20% of animation creatives, despite comprising 60% of animation students.

While demographic data on animation labor equality remains undeniably grim, questions of diversity and inclusion in animated productions — often conspicuously absent from broader cultural discourse on media representation — are worth a closer look. Firstly, because even though contemporary commercial animation often features more diverse casts than live-action films, this tends to fly under the radar of most critics. And secondly, because common misconceptions about the medium — from outdated notions of its target audiences to a narrow understanding of the scope of its content — often preclude a serious consideration of animation’s potential as a platform for inclusivity.[ ((There are, of course, exceptions. See, for example, Johnson Cheu, ed., Diversity in Disney Films: Critical Essays on Race, Ethnicity, Gender, Sexuality and Disability (McFarland & Company, 2013).))]

Even animation critics are not immune to this tendency to marginalize the artform by overstating the implications of its otherness. Take, for instance, this response to the aforementioned roundtable debacle, which describes diversity in animation as a “tough concept to nail down.” According to the author, animated films are a “different matter altogether” because their “marked separation from reality” ensures that “any traits of diversity are capable of going unnoticed unless they either made explicit [sic] or designed that way to begin with.”

Let us put aside the fact that animation’s relationship to reality is the subject of an entire disciplinary subfield, animated documentary studies[ (( Annabelle Honness Roe, Animated Documentary (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).))]; the use of medium specificity in an attempt to render one of the most pervasive media forms of our time immune to pressing social justice concerns begs the question — is diversity in animation really such a complicated matter? Or can toons — in all their colorful, kinetic, sometimes anthropomorphic glory — reflect the experiences of underrepresented groups and celebrate marginalized identities just as meaningfully as live action?


Netflix’s Tuca & Bertie, an animated example of marginalized experiences and identities finding screen space.

A little Bertie told me that they can. Lisa Hanawalt’s Tuca & Bertie (2019), an adult-oriented Netflix show that centers on the friendship between a toucan and a song thrush, has recently made waves for being a rare breed — a female-centric, woman-led show in an animated TV landscape dominated by men. Voiced by stars of color (Ali Wong, Tiffany Haddish, and Steven Yeun), and celebrated as an “ode to female friendship, healing, and survival,” Tuca & Bertie has simultaneously modelled animation’s potential to feature diverse acting talent and its capacity to tackle topics commonly sidelined in mainstream productions, or else rarely presented from a feminist perspective (as sexual harassment and trauma are, in this case). While this particular show is addressed to grown-up viewers, a number of recent kid-friendly animated programs have contributed enormously to gender and LGBTQ representation in children’s media, highlighting the ways in which animation’s broad reach can bring inclusivity and diversity to the forefront of youth culture. Noelle Stevenson’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (Netflix, 2018-present), which features a predominantly female cast, offers a family-oriented take on female empowerment and sisterhood, while also depicting the loving relationship of a main character’s two dads. Steven Universe (Cartoon Network, 2013-present) has been praised for continuously dismantling gender norms, celebrating non-binary identities and queer icons of color, and depicting the first same-sex wedding in a mainstream children’s show. Finally, Amazon’s kids-oriented Danger & Eggs (2015-17), broke ground as a queer-inclusive cartoon co-created by Shadi Petosky, the only openly trans showrunner in American animation. The series, which features several queer characters voiced by LGBTQ talent, culminates in a season finale set at a Pride celebration, during which a young girl (voiced by trans rights activist Jazz Jennings) sings a song about her first day attending school “as her authentic self,” marking a milestone for trans inclusivity in animated TV.


Danger & Eggs's Pride Parade finale
Amazon’s Danger & Eggs Celebrates Pride.

While these shows are all produced by streaming giants such as Netflix and Amazon or TV channels such as Cartoon Network, in the past decade, online crowdfunding platforms have enabled independent animation creators — women and people of color in particular — to directly respond to fans’ desire for a greater variety of diverse content in the medium. In 2013, Natasha Allegri’s Kickstarter campaign for Bee and PuppyCat (2013-present), her manga-influenced show about a young woman and her magical four-legged companion, raised almost $900,000, demonstrating the need for adult-oriented animation which “puts [women], their experiences, and their tastes first.” More recently, Hair Love (2019), an animated short about a Black father learning to do his daughter’s hair, attracted nearly $300,000 on Kickstarter, exceeding its original funding target fourfold. Despite being conceived as a festival short, the film has since been picked up for distribution for Sony Animation, playing in theaters ahead of The Angry Birds Movie 2 (Van Orman, 2019). Creator Matthew A. Cherry has explicitly linked the overwhelmingly positive response to his project to the importance of representation, specifically the film’s positive portrayal of Black fatherhood.


The Kickstarter-funded Hair Love (2019) exponentially exceeded its funding goal.

Despite this recent push for more inclusive content, animation is not immune to many of the issues that have plagued commercial American media’s approaches to diversity and representation, including queerbaiting, tokenism, and other half-hearted, superficial gestures towards representation. The recent fan outcry against botched LGBTQ representation attempts in Netflix’s Voltron: Legendary Defender (2016-18) productively illustrates the intensity and breadth of impact (both positive and negative) that a TV-Y7 cartoon can have on marginalized audiences of all ages. During a much-publicized San Diego Comic Con panel ahead of the show’s seventh season, showrunners Joaquim Dos Santos and Lauren Montgomery revealed that Takashi “Shiro” Shirogane, one of the show’s central characters, is gay, and teased a storyline involving his former partner, Adam. This news was greeted with an outpouring of fan enthusiasm, which quickly turned to accusations of queerbaiting and references to the “bury your gays” trope as soon as the season aired, never exploring their relationship and revealing that Adam had died while Shiro was away. To make matters worse, in an attempt to smooth things over through what has been aptly described as an instance of “epilogue representation,” the series finale’s post-script features a tacked-on wedding between Shiro and an extremely minor male character. This insensitive, perfunctory approach to queer representation ultimately sparked important discussions of authenticity and pandering, becoming a warning to creators to “stop preemptively outing their characters” in a manipulative attempt to generate positive buzz.

Whether drawn or filmed, representation matters — and its absence can be keenly felt. After Netflix unexpectedly (and inexplicably) cancelled Tuca & Bertie after its first season, fans of Hanawalt’s cartoon quickly took to twitter to express their dismay and outrage on behalf of a show that focuses — with a notable degree of honesty and compassion — on women’s experiences in a way that remains rare to see on the small screen. In particular, tweets by women, such as the one pictured below,


Tweet supporting Tuca & Bertie
An example of the strong social media outrage at Tuca & Bertie‘s cancellation.

commonly noted the dearth of female-oriented content available to them, while highlighting the show’s importance from the perspective of representation. At the same time, Tuca & Bertie’s cancellation brought renewed attention to a larger Netflix trend of prematurely “axing shows led by people of color and women,” serving as a sobering reminder that, in the broader context of diversity in contemporary TV, one bird show does not a summer make. Still, as even a relatively cursory overview of feminist, queer-inclusive, and race-conscious animated content can demonstrate, diversity in animation is not a tough concept to nail down. Women, people of color, and queer creators have been nailing it.



Image Credits:

  1. New series bringing diversity to animation. (Bee and PuppyCat image from Polygon; Steven Universe from The New York Times; She-Ra and the Princesses of Power from Decider; Tuca & Bertie from Deadline)
  2. Netflix’s Tuca & Bertie, an animated example of marginalized experiences and identities finding screen space.
  3. Amazon’s Danger & Eggs‘s Pride Parade Finale.
  4. The Kickstarter-funded Hair Love (2019) exponentially exceeded its funding goal.
  5. An example of the strong social media outrage at Tuca & Bertie‘s cancellation.


References:




Queer Female Superheroes: DC Comics Bombshells Tell Their Own Story
Christina M. Knopf / SUNY Cortland


DC Comics Bombshells
DC Comics Bombshells

In 2013, DC Collectibles introduced a line of statues by artist Ant Lucia called the DC Comics Bombshells, which rendered fans’ favorite female superheroes and villains in the style of pin-up models from the 1940s (see below). In 2015, writer Marguerite Bennett used Lucia’s character designs as the basis for a new, feminist, queer, comic book series DC Comics Bombshells. Bennett was praised for “low key pulling off a level of representation still largely absent in most mainstream films and TV shows.”[ (( Riley Silverman, “Bombshells and Batwomen: An Interview with Marguerite Bennett,” SyFyWire, June 15, 2017, accessed August 23, 2019, https://www.syfy.com/syfywire/bombshells-and-batwomen-interview-marguerite-bennett. ))] Bennett’s own female, queer identity is significant in this regard because she is not creating diversity but offering representation, noting, “I might just not know how to write anyone straight.”[ (( Quoted in Silverman, “Bombshells,” paragraph 4. ))] And queer female readers appreciate seeing familiar characters in stories more specifically “for” them.[ (( Silverman, “Bombshells. ))] In the words of Bennett’s Aquawoman, “I am the teller of my own story. I belong to myself alone.”[ (( Marguerite Bennett, Laura Braga, & Mirka Andolfa, DC Comics Bombshells, Volume 2: Allies (Burbank, CA: DC Comics, 2016). ))] DC Comics Bombshells, with its all-female starring cast, established by an all-female creative team, exemplifies the validation of women’s experiences and self-expression, offering a retro comic book variant of #MeToo — women telling women’s stories.


DC Collectibles Ant Lucia Art

The series used the changing role of women during World War II as its premise. Bennett’s allohistorical universe followed the exploits of established but reimagined female superheroes, anti-heroes, and supervillains as they joined the war effort as part of a female paramilitary organization called The Bombshells. Despite their pin-up stylings, characters were defined not by their sexuality but by their wartime roles: Batwoman played for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Supergirl and Stargirl were Russian bomber pilots in the Night Witches regiment. Wonder Woman joined the Army while Aquawoman worked reconnaissance with the Navy. Zatanna was a cabaret performer in Germany and Huntress a member of the German youth underground. Catwoman and Poison Ivy were smugglers in the European black market. Harley Quinn was a doctor in a London psychiatric hospital. (See image below.) Additionally, the characters represented different sexual orientations, gender identities, colors, nations, faiths, ages, and economic backgrounds, all of which were revealed subtly through the contexts of the stories. Bennett’s writing thus managed to represent the variety of women’s experience without resorting to the comic book formula of using one or two women as archetypal stand-ins for all women.


The DC Comics Bombshells cast
The DC Comics Bombshells cast.

“In this story, in this universe,” Bennett said, “I wanted the women to be the ones to define what heroism is going to be for this coming century.”[ (( Vaneta Rogers, “DC Comics Bombshells Creates World Where Women Were Heroes of World War II,” Newsarama, July 24, 2015, accessed October 15, 2016, http://www.newsarama.com/25336-dc-bombshells-creator-creates-world-where-women-were-heroes-of-world-war-ii.html, paragraph 7.))] Therefore, the heroines exist in a world where they are not derivatives of male superheroes but are instead heroes in their own right. The allohistory was created without the real-world constraints faced by women of the past (or present). Though prejudices are found in the Bombshells universe, they do not limit the activities of the women. Bennett explained, “I don’t want to see them first have to prove that they’re allowed to be heroes. […] I wanted to move society ahead [so that] when girls pick up these books, they can see these women […] living up to their fullest potential.”[ (( Quoted in Rogers, “DC Comics Bombshells,” paragraphs 11-12. ))]

The Bombshells story is a response to, and enabled by, heightened attention to contested public spaces with active debates about who is/not allowed to participate in civic life. The alternative version of WWII offers a reminder that the contributions of women in the past, and present, is often undervalued or dismissed. Commander Amanda Waller describes her Bombshells unit saying, “While the good gentlemen are relying on traditional warfare — we have engaged an independent organization that makes use of ‘unexpected and unsuspected resources’” — women (emphasis added).[ (( Marguerite Bennett, Mirka Andolfo, & Laura Braga, DC Comics Bombshells, Volume 3: Uprising (Burbank, CA: DC Comics, 2017). ))] WWII, with its apparent clarity of purpose, is a popular media frame for subsequent conflicts.[ ((Ex., Andrew Crampton, & Marcus Power, “Frames of Reference on the Geopolitical Stage: Saving Private Ryan and the Second World War/Second Gulf War Intertext,” Geopolitics 10, no. 2 (2005): 244-265. ))] Bombshells thus offers a useful parable for exploring the social changes of the present day; shifting gender roles of the 1940s works as a metaphor for the shifting gender identities of the 2010s. In 1941, the workforce became gender integrated; in 2016, bathrooms did. In 1943, women were allowed to serve in all branches of the military; in 2010, gays were allowed to openly serve, and in 2016, combat jobs were opened to women.

The second series of DC Comics Bombshells, “United,” was introduced in late 2017 and featured the Japanese internment camps that held over 100,000 Americans between 1942 and 1946. In 2018, immigration detention centers in the United States held about 40,000 people per day. The parallels between these institutions were introduced in April 2016 when Bennett featured the mayoral campaign of Harvey Dent, reimagined as a war-era Donald Trump. While Trump was promising to “make America great again,” Dent promised to “make Gotham golden once more.”[ (( Bennett, Andolfo, & Braga, Uprising. ))] Both campaigns promoted stricter immigration as a means of improving the economy and reducing crime and civil unrest. And, both campaigns made visible the white, patriarchal hegemony of American power structures by making explicit a desire to return to an era of exclusively white male privilege (see below).[ (( Andrew O’Hehir, “America’s First White President, Salon, December 10, 2016, accessed January 24, 2017, http://www.salon.com/2016/12/10/americas-first-white-president/; Andrew O’Hehir, “Fake News, a Fake President and Fake Country: Welcome to America, Land of No Context,” Salon, December 3, 2016, accessed August 10, 2019, https://www.salon.com/control/2016/12/03/fake-news-a-fake-president-and-a-fake-country-welcome-to-america-land-of-no-context/. ))]


description of image
Frames from the Bombshells’ Trump allegory.

It is arguably WWII’s iconicity in American cultural fabric that makes the diversity and situated truths of Bombshells narratively and commercially successful. Its historical context and vintage aesthetic work within the nostalgia economy that supports the superhero industry.[ (( Carol Tilley, “Superheroes and Identity: The Roles of Nostalgia in Comic Book Culture,” in Reinventing Childhood Nostalgia: Books, Toys, and Contemporary Media Culture, ed. Elisabeth Wesseling (London: Routledge, 2018), Kindle edition, 51-65. ))] Authenticity was established through use of retro art styles and media formats. Each story acts as a separate chapter focusing on a different heroine, each given her own generic formula: Wonder Woman, a war film; Supergirl, a propaganda reel; Catwoman, a noir; Zatanna, a Hammer horror; Aquawoman, a romance; Harley Quinn, a comedy; and, Batwoman, a pulp radio serial.[ (( Rogers, “DC Comics Bombshells,”; Barksdale, “DC Comics”; Amy Ratcliffe, Marguerite Bennett discusses WWII female heroes in ‘DC Comics Bombshells’,” Comic Book Resources, July 29, 2015, accessed October 26, 2015, from http://www.cbr.com/marguerite-bennett-discusses-wwii-female-heroes-in-dc-comics-bombshells/. ))]


Batwoman's Pulp Aesthetic
Batwoman’s Pulp Aesthetic and the Moment She Prevents the Creation of Batman.

Batwoman, aka Kate Kane, was the series’ lead heroine. As a Jewish-American lesbian fighting Nazis, her identity was central and organic to the story. By comparison, the CW’s new Batwoman (2019-present) television series has been criticized for “riding the feminist train” and ostracizing “the very people who they need to keep the ratings going, 18–45-year-old males, especially white males who are the significant purchasers of comic books” by featuring a queer superhero played by a queer actress (Ruby Rose),[ (( Bobbie L. Washington, “The Batwoman Controversy,” Medium, May 21, 2019, accessed August 23, 2019, https://medium.com/@screamingbear/the-batwoman-controversy-a18c94dfb8d. ))] and for being a mediocre show unremarkable aside from its queerness.[ (( Alex Cranz, “The Mediocrity of Batwoman also Feels Like One of Its Biggest Strengths,” Gizmodo, July 18, 2019, accessed August 23, 2019, https://io9.gizmodo.com/the-mediocrity-of-batwoman-also-feels-like-one-of-its-b-1836505759. ))] Whereas the Bombshells Batwoman exists independently of a male counterpart, even preventing the crime that instigated the creation of Batman in canon, CW’s Batwoman is a replacement for the inexplicably-absent Batman, offering a thin foundation for what some fans have perceived as needless male-bashing in the trailer (below). Likewise, the trailer’s revelation of Kane’s sexual orientation is perceived as clunky at best.[ (( Washington, “The Batwoman”; Susan Polo, “The CW’s Batwoman Pilot Gets the Most Important Thing about Batwoman Right,” Polygon, July 18, 2019, accessed August 23, 2019, https://www.polygon.com/tv/2019/7/18/20698871/cw-batwoman-review-sdcc-2019. ))] The combined effect may be undermining the series’ morals about integrity and privilege.


CW’s Batwoman Trailer

The main message of Bennett’s Bombshells, which is also found in the CW’s Batwoman, and in the queer, Muslim, black, and Latinx characters throughout the CW Arrowverse, is captured by the words of a Bombshells Batgirl: “You’re allowed to be happy in your own skin, in your own home.”[ (( Bennett, Andolfo, & Braga, Uprising. ))]



Image Credits:

  1. DC Collectibles Ant Lucia Art (YouTube)
  2. DC Comics Bombshells.
  3. The DC Comics Bombshells cast
  4. Frames from the Bombshells’ Trump allegory
  5. Batwoman’s Pulp Aesthetic and the Moment She Prevents the Creation of Batman
  6. CW’s Batwoman Trailer (YouTube)


References: