The Personal Is Digital: Exploring Race, Beauty and Hair Online
Briana Barner/ University of Texas at Austin

screenshot from Shea Moisture commercial

Screenshot from the Shea Moisture hair commercial.

Hair care company Shea Moisture quickly learned the power of a viral ad when one of their recent digital commercials caused much controversy. It debuted on the heels of another viral ad that caused similar controversy: Pepsi’s ill-fated protest commercial that starred Kendall Jenner. What the two commercials have in common is that there was an almost-immediate online backlash to the ads’ content: both attempted to deal with racially sensitive issues. Pepsi’s ad staged a protest that ended with Jenner handing a cop…a Pepsi. Shea Moisture’s ad featured a concept they called “hair hate,” which will be explored throughout this article.

According to scholar Joanna L. Jenkins, Black women have had a contested relationship with advertising. During enslavement, they were advertised in local media as commodities and wenches to be both physical and sexual property during slavery. Jenkins writes that “advertising proliferates portrayals of people of color, such as Black women, that reflect the perceived values and norms of general market audiences” ((Jenkins, Joanna L. “Apparitions of the Past and Obscure Visions for the Future: Stereotypes of Black Women and Advertising during a Paradigm Shift” in Black Women and Popular Culture, ed. Adria Y. Goldman, Lexington Books, London, 2014, pp. 199-233.)) Images are a key component of advertisements, and are also key components of ideologies about race present in media. Media then helps to construct ideas about race.

The Shea Moisture commercial was released on their social media platforms on April 24, 2017. Within hours of its release, the company removed the commercial and quickly released an apology on their Facebook page. The company has utilized social media as a way to connect with its loyal users, who they said in one Facebook post, utilized their brand even when they were selling their merchandise on the streets of New York. Those same customers took to the company’s Facebook page to express their hurt and disappointment over the commercial by leaving very detailed 1-star reviews. One of those reviews, which was written the day after the commercial was released, stated the following:

“But the problem with that ad is that there is no clear connection between SM [Shea Moisture] and the needs the product serve for the red headed lady or blonde. Sure consumers who are white may enjoy using your products, but they aren’t necessarily your core consumer. The “hate” those women may have for their hair doesn’t come from the same place as a black woman’s nor does their path to loving their hair look like a black woman’s. This ad conflates those experiences and erases the nuances of the black woman’s hair journey.”

Race and beauty have become digitized, to echo Lisa Nakamura, and in the wake of this, online spaces have become spaces to share information but to also exercise buying power and to influence others to do the same. ((Nakamura, Lisa and Chow-White, Peter A. “Introduction: Race and Digital Technology.” in Race after the Internet, eds. Lisa Nakamura and Peter A. Chow-White, Taylor and Francis, Hoboken, 2011, pp. 5.)) Several bad reviews on social media is bad business for any business—Shea Moisture now has thousands of them. Joanna Jenkins states, “The Internet has become a form forum for communities to mobilize their collective voices to support causes they care about, increase philanthropy and use consumerism for good…Advertising has become increasingly participatory. As a result, advertisers are being held accountable for their choices in real time.” ((Jenkins, 217.))

The ad featured three women discussing “hair hate.” Two of them were White women—one with blonde hair and one with red hair. The third woman had long, curly dark hair and appears to be a woman of color. The commercial begins with her saying, “People would throw stuff in my hair and there would be like, little paper balls in my hair. I hated it because I have this (pointing to her hair) and people make fun of me for it.” The next image are words that say, “Fact: Hair hate is real.” This implies that the treatment that the previous woman described is to be understood as “hair hate,” though it is never explicitly defined.

hair hate

Screenshot from the commercial, with the theme of addressing and ending “hair hate.

Next, the woman with blonde hair states, “It was a lot of days of staring in the mirror going, ‘I don’t know what to do with it.’” She points to her hair, similar to the previous woman with the curly hair. Finally, the woman with the red hair says, ‘I didn’t feel like I was supposed to be a red head. I dyed my hair blonde for seven years of my life. Platinum blonde.” She emphasizes the last two words with a knowing glance toward the camera, to signal the incredulity of dying her hair that color. The camera returns back to the woman with darker hair as she says, “I didn’t embrace my hair. But as I got older I learned how to do it and learned how to love it.” The following scene has these words in big letters: “Break free from hair hate.”

The commercial ends with the hashtag #EverybodyGetsLove. #EverybodyGetsLove, the commercial insists, but there is a noticeable absence of the women of color who made the product popular. “Embrace hair love in every form,” the commercial states before including brief images of a more diverse group of people. But there is not an embrace of a variety of hair types in the commercial. The main models all have long hair, and the only one with curls, has very loose, almost wavy curls—unlike the tighter coiled hair of many of the Youtube hair vloggers who do reviews of Shea Moisture’s products. There is a small but growing portion of health and beauty aisles in major stores like Walmart and Target that cater to “Ethnic Hair Care.” For Black women, wearing their hair in its natural state requires not only the right hair products but acceptance in some form. Being “natural” is an identity that connects Black people to others doing the same, wearing their hair in styles that are in direct opposition to mainstream ideals of beauty.

diverse models

Screenshot from the Shea Moisture commercial that features models with more diverse hair types.

In a Facebook post written in 2016 after there were concerns that the company would no longer prioritize the women of color consumers the brand seemed to target, the company stated:

“Because of your love for what we do and how we do it, our SheaMoisture and Nubian Heritage brands are now in stores all across the country and internationally. We are here because of you – and we will never take that for granted…When we started in 1992, there were very few companies focused on creating natural products for natural and textured hair needs. In fact, there were very few companies that even made an effort to understand and service your needs.”

The hair hate discussed in the commercial minimizes the actual discrimination and prejudice that Black women face solely because of their hair. Congresswoman Maxine Waters provides a great example of this. Despite challenging an administration that puts the lives of many at risk with their racist, sexist, ableist, Islamophobic and homophobic rhetoric, Waters was disparaged by Bill O’Reilly because he did not find her hair appealing. We can also look at the many states in which dreadlocks can be a reason to discriminate against a potential employee.

free from hair hate

The ad encourages the viewer to end “hair hate,” with the use of Shea Moisture products.

It is important to acknowledge the role that the Internet played in this controversy. Lisa Nakamura writes: “Mediated conversations about race, whether on the Internet with human interlocutors or with the torrent of digitized media texts, have become an increasingly important channel for discourse about our differences. Race has itself become a digital medium, a distinctive set of infomatic codes, networked mediated narratives, maps, images and visualizations that index identity.” ((Nakamura and Chow-White, 5.)) Black women have used their collective voices to fight back against harmful ideologies of erasure and the minimizing of issues important to them. Within hours of both the release of the commercial and the apology, many declared on various social media platforms and thinkpieces that Shea Moisture had been “cancelled,” and began highlighting other Black-owned hair care lines. Only time will tell if this does long-term damage to their brand, but it is a lesson that harmful ideologies can now be addressed and protested within hours of them spreading.

Image Credits:

1. Author’s screen grab.
2. Author’s screen grab.
3. Author’s screen grab.
4. Author’s screen grab.

Please feel free to comment.

Primetime Pedagogies: Racism, Primetime TV, and the Limits of Dissent
Phoebe Bronstein, University of California, San Diego

Blackish Cast Photo, courtesy of ABC

The cast of ABC’s Blackish

In 1959, Harry Belafonte starred in and produced a groundbreaking Revlon special, Tonight With Belafonte. For the program, Belafonte envisioned “a portrait of Negro life in America told through music,” for which he won an Emmy [ ((Belafonte, Harry. My Song: A Memoir. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011, pp. 209-210.))] The initial special’s successes led to CBS and Revlon signing Belafonte for five more specials—over which he would have complete creative control. In 1960, Belafonte’s second special New York 19 premiered on CBS, reflecting “the musical heritage of the inhabitants of this multi-racial, midtown Manhattan area” [ ((Salmaggi, Bob. “Madison Avenue is Dead End,” Los Angeles Times. (November 18, 1960): A12.))]. In New York 19, while Belafonte occupied the center of the screen and framed the production, whites remained on the periphery, sharing the screen equally with African Americans, Latinos, Jews, and the other inhabitants of the New York 19 postal zone. The series garnered critical acclaim; however, Revlon canceled the next four installments, pointing to anxiety about how southern white viewers would react to this multi-racial cast. [ ((Belafonte, 220.))] Diversity was okay in primetime, the logic went, so long as shows reinforced the color-line.

In the first part of this column, I use Belafonte’s canceled Revlon specials to consider television’s pedagogical potential, highlighting this potential as an early structural anxiety that policed representations of race in primetime. Ultimately, I am curious to think about how these anxieties about television’s potential for teaching remain encoded into the medium’s content. Near the end of the column, I turn to the recent “Richard Youngsta” black-ish episode, following Herman Gray’s contention in Watching Race that the early years of television shaped and established patterns for subsequent representations of race on television, a point “Richard Youngsta” makes explicitly. I’m curious, here, about how contemporary shows build overtly instructional components into their content, thereby mobilizing primetime television’s imagined pedagogical potential for seemingly progressive ends.

Anxiety about what audiences could learn about race from television structured early television depictions of race broadly and blackness especially. Here, I am drawing on Lynn Spigel and Michael Curtin’s contention in The Revolution Wasn’t Televised, that “prime-time programs were not mere escapism, but were centrally involved in sustaining, interrogating, and even transforming social relations and cultural affinities throughout the decade [1960s].” [ ((Spigel, Lynn and Michael Curtin. The Revolution Wasn’t Televised, Sixties Television and Social
Conflict. Eds. Michael Curtin and Lynn Spigel. New York: Routledge, 1997, p.11))] As television rapidly became a national medium in the 1950s, debates over its pedagogical value were inextricably tied to racist network and advertiser concerns about black representation.

As Spigel articulates in Make Room for TV, early [television] “was the great family minstrel that promised to bring Mom, Dad, and the kids together; at the same time, it had to be carefully controlled so that it harmonized with the separate gender roles and social functions of individual family members” [ ((Spigel, Lynn. Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992. p. 37))]. Television could, following this logic, bring the family together by teaching viewers how an ideal American family should look, behave, and function. By the late 1950s, this vision of family was inextricably tied to whiteness. Furthermore, as Spigel notes, television networks went beyond the “consumer educator” model, hoping to teach “women and their families how to consume television itself” [ ((Spigel, 84))]. This harmonizing effort worked to reinforce racist constructions wherein Black American experience, when it was represented at all, was always ushered on-screen through and for the white gaze. The latter is what made Harry Belafonte’s work for Revlon so threatening to the dominant order of early 1960s television–a white primetime landscape inflected by the rise of civil rights news coverage.

The diversity of New York 19, Belafonte’s star text–including his social justice work as part of the Civil Rights Movement–and his central role threatened to disrupt the white conformist message of early television by reimagining New York life from a Black authorial perspective. This racist anxiety of what television could teach viewers persisted throughout the decade: later in 1968 CBS would pull Belafonte’s 8 minute “Don’t Stop the Carnival” superimposed over images of the riots at the 1968 DNC, set to air during a Smothers Brothers episode. Belafonte’s star-text and experiences in television challenged the “familiar and foundational myth of the happy Negro living in a world shut off from white experience and privilege” [ ((Classen, Steven D. Watching Jim Crow: The Struggle over Mississippi TV, 1955-1969, p.94))]. Belafonte’s experience with Revlon, alongside other examples ranging from Nat King Cole’s short-lived NBC variety show to later colorblind primetime fare like I Spy and Julia, reveal an anxiety about the potential of television to upend the white supremacist message of much of primetime.

Whether centering blackness and racial specificity like Belafonte’s work or featuring Black leads in colorblind worlds, like Julia or the much-more recent Grey’s Anatomy, primetime representations of race reveal the ways in which “power must accommodate dissent, if only to remain powerful” [ ((Spigel and Curtin, 8))]. Belafonte’s resistance and Revlon’s reaction to New York 19 reveal the limits of what Revlon and CBS would willingly incorporate in 1960, particularly programmed amidst Civil Rights news broadcasts featuring regular calls for de-segregation. Revlon’s fear appeared in what television could teach viewers, through advertising, and primetime representation: that neither whiteness nor the white nuclear family were harmoniously natural.

Within this frame, I want to turn to black-ish’s “Richard Youngsta” episode. The episode focuses on a preview of Dre’s new ad campaign for Uvo Champagne, wherein a rapper (played by Chris Brown) pours champagne on a Black woman and turns her into a white woman. Expecting praise from his family, Dre is shocked when his wife and mom (Bow and Ruby respectively) instead offer critique: “My son is a Stepin Fetchit,” Ruby asserts, “He sold out his whole race just to be in the damn movie.” This moment initiates a montage of old filmic images and a monologue defining the “Stepin Fetchit” trope. Bow says “Stepin Fetchit,” “whose popular character dubbed the laziest man in the world set up the coon archetype […] He was denounced by the NAACP.” To further her point, Bow even invites over the family’s racist white neighbor, who gleefully laughs and dances to the commercial. As the montage ends, the next shot reveals Bow clearly reading off her phone. Snatching Bow’s phone out of her hands, an exasperated Dre responds, “what you are not reading off the Internet is that he was the first Black actor to earn a million dollars, the first Black actor to get an on-screen credit […] He broke down barriers at a time when roles for us weren’t that plentiful.”

Stepin Fetchit on screen.

Stepin Fetchit on screen.

Only later in the episode does Dre regret the ad campaign and reflect on his own anxiety about what media can teach us when he walks in on Jack pretending to pour champagne, or “Uvo,” all over a stoic Diane. This moment recalls the earlier image in the ad of a Black woman being turned into a white woman, and the repetition of this moment–via the twins–envisions the ways in which white supremacy, and “selling out his whole race” relies on exploitation and here the literal erasure of Black women. (Ultimately, Dre remakes the ad to push against the very stereotypes his early ad had embraced.)

The episode as a whole articulates a more complicated vision of Black representation in Hollywood than Ruby and Bow’s initial reading suggests, asking questions about the economics of television and the power of media broadly to teach and impart dominant and racist values. We see here, through the twins, what mainstream television has long taught and naturalized: white supremacy. At the same time, the episode works to teach viewers, some of whom who are perhaps unaware, about that same history through the discussion of “Stepin Fetchit” and by featuring family conversations about Black representation. By centering questions of Black representation in pop culture, black-ish makes explicit the ways in which primetime television teaches viewers about race, arguing in this instance for the medium’s potential to teach a more progressive racial politics.

Bow and Ruby discuss Black representation

Bow and Ruby discuss Black representation.

Henry Giroux articulates in “Public Pedagogy as Cultural Politics,” that “For theorists such as Hall, Grossberg, and others culture is a strategic pedagogical and political terrain whose force was a ‘crucial site and weapon of power in the modern world’ (Grossberg, 1996b: 142)” [ ((Giroux, Henry. “Public Pedagogy as Cultural Politics: Stuart Hall and the #Crisis# of Culture.” Cultural Studies (14:2, 341-360). 9 November 2010. p.342))]. From Harry Belafonte to black-ish, moments like those I’ve discussed here strategically articulate a politics that argue against the conservative and racist messaging that has long dominated network television. As black-ish teaches viewers about the Stepin Fetchit trope, so too does it self-referentially reveal the ways in which black representation on network TV is always working within and co-opting racist tropes. While black-ish seems revolutionary, we have to understand this show as still working in conversation with the same anxieties that led to the cancellation of Belafonte’s New York 19. This major shift doesn’t necessarily reflect a growing radicalism within primetime TV, but instead shows how primetime TV responds to cultural and historical shifts, incorporating dissent and mobilizing the medium’s pedagogical potential, perhaps as a means to stay relevant, marketable, and connected to viewers.

Image Credits

    1. black-ish cast
    2. Stepin Fetchit (author’s screen grab)
    3. Bow and Ruby (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.

Power-Knowledge in a ‘Post-Truth’ World
Roopali Mukherjee / CUNY, Queens College


Joe Heenan’s satirical art pokes fun at Trump’s rhetoric

Days after the 2016 US elections, The Poke invited readers to send in renderings of famous Western artworks that photo-shopped or otherwise incorporated newly elected Donald Trump into them. Collected under the hashtag #TrumpArtworks, scores of images, smarting with sarcasm and contempt, poured in, among them Joe Heenan’s revision of the 1942 Edward Hopper work, Nighthawks. In a send-up of Trump’s “alternative fact” about the size of the crowd at the inaugural ceremonies, Heenan’s revision seats Trump at the iconic late-night diner, announcing to the few patrons there: “This place is packed!”

Answering Trump’s bluster that the inaugural ceremonies would gather his supporters in a rally that “would be the biggest of them all!,” mild-mannered Bernie Sanders responded with a side-by-side visual comparison, tweeting a rare jab: “They didn’t. It wasn’t.”

Sanders Tweet ASanders Tweet B

Images comparing the crowd sizes for 2017’s Presidential Inauguration and Women’s March

Within hours, CNN unveiled the now famous split-image comparison of aerial shots of Trump’s 2017 and Obama’s 2009 inaugurations, which showed, quite unequivocally, that the Obama crowds far outnumbered those that had assembled for Trump.


Images comparing the crowd sizes for Obama’s 2009 inauguration to Trump’s in 2017

Gleefully re-tweeted across social media circuits worldwide, these responses join a nightly barrage of sharp-tongued television satire as well as a string of public condemnations – Meryl Streep, John McCain, and others – contributing to a glut of blistering commentary and satire. A catalogue of Trump’s characteristic lapses into invention and exaggeration, these rejoinders track prognoses of an alarming new “post-truth” or “post-fact” world. [ ((Belluz, Julia. June 28, 2016. “Do Brexit and Donald Trump prove that we’re living in an era of fact-free politics?” Vox.] [ ((Drezner, Daniel W. June 16, 2016. “Why the post-truth political era might be around for a while.” Washington Post.] [ ((Egan, Timothy. November 4, 2016. “The post-truth presidency.” New York Times.] [ ((Holland, Justin. November 30, 2015. “Welcome to Donald Trump’s post-fact America.” Rolling Stone.] [ ((Krugman, Paul. December 22, 2011. “The post-truth campaign.” New York Times.] [ ((Manjoo, Farhad. 2008. True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society. New York: Wiley.))] [ ((Sirota, David. March 3, 2007. “Welcome to the post-factual era.” Huffington Post.] The willful spread of “rumor bombs” [ ((Harsin, Jayson. 2010. “That’s democratainment: Obama, rumor bombs and primary definers.” Flow, 13(1).] [ ((Harsin, Jayson. February 2015. “Regimes of posttruth, postpolitics, and attention economies.” Communication, Culture & Critique, 8(2): 327–333.))] and “contrary facts of dubious quality and provenance” [ ((Fukuyama, Francis. February 23, 2017. “The emergence of a post-fact world.” Project Syndicate.], the dangerous masking of propaganda as “fake news” and “alternative facts” [ ((Soll, Jacob. December 18, 2016. “The long and brutal history of fake news.”] [ ((Stanley, Jason. 2015. How Propaganda Works. Princeton University Press.))], each underscores the stakes of the post-truth/post-fact crisis. A sign of its permeation within the cultural milieu, popular use of the term “post-truth” grew by approximately 2,000 percent over the year, a spike that so distinguished the term that Oxford Dictionaries named it the 2016 Word of the Year.

These shifts toward distortion, misrepresentation, and hyperbole have, in turn, spurred reprisals of a vehement facticity – vigilant repositings of verified and verifiable claims – via news reports, blog posts, social media updates, op-eds, scholarly commentaries, fact-check services – and a parade of data-heavy empirical forms including charts, graphs, interactive maps, timelines, testimonials, photographs, video and audio recordings, surveys, and interviews. Thus, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s HateWatch maps [ ((Southern Poverty Law Center, Spring 2017. Active Hate Groups in the United States in 2016 (Map).], Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King’s crowd-sourced USA Election Monitor [ ((King, Shaun. 2016. USA Election Monitor (Interactive Map).], the Pew Research Center’s sobering graph showing anti-Muslim hate crimes escalating to post-9/11 levels [ ((Pew Research Center Fact Tank, 2016. “Anti-Muslim assaults reach 9/11 era levels FBI data show.”], the Center for American Progress’s fact sheet on the costs of Trump’s deportation policies [ ((Edwards, Ryan and Ortega, Francesc. September 21, 2016. “The economic impacts of removing unauthorized immigrant workers: An industry- and state-level analysis.” Center for American Progress.], the Reuters/Ipsos poll that documents high levels of anti-black sentiments among Trump supporters [ ((Reuters/Ipsos. June 30, 2016. “Racial attitudes of Presidential candidates’ supporters” (Chart).], each offers a painstaking compilation of figures, statistics, records, and documents as a demonstration of, and a prophylactic against, the administration’s dangerous disregard for facts and evidence.

SPL Hate Map

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s HateWatch maps track active hate groups in America

Pew Anti-Muslim Assaults

The Pew Research Center Fact Tank found that anti-muslim assaults are at highest level since 2001

Reuters/Ipsos Poll

Reuters/Ipsos’s poll documents high levels of anti-black sentiments among Trump supporters

The steady drumbeat of these data-heavy responses suggests a foreboding, a widespread unease, as if their testimonies must bark to drown out Trump’s machinery of dissemblance and exaggeration. Belting out refrains of reliable and replicable evidence, they labor to assert the disciplinary modalities of facts and truth as if, somehow, the formidable authority of these epistemic forms now needs shoring up and reassurance. Reiterating the ethical necessity of empirical, fact-based truths, each is, at once, an inoculant against and a wary admission of the bewildering specter of a post-truth/post-fact world.

Certainly, the fast-and-loose proclivities of the new administration deserve nothing less than relentless vigilance for they are, quite without doubt, opportunistic, irresponsible, and dangerous. But the post-truth/post-fact crisis also invites insights about a whole terrain of epistemic contestation that marks the authority of official knowledges precisely in their encounters with unpalatable counter-knowledges. The stakes of the current crisis, then, also allow us glimpses of the disciplinary modalities of facts and falsehoods themselves as categories of power-knowledge embedded within struggles authorizing some truths and repressing others, and enlisted to maintaining the dominant order.


The earliest salvo in Trump’s arsenal of reckless “truthiness,” as Stephen Colbert terms it, repeated the widely discredited but viscerally effective birther lie that the nation’s first black President was foreign-born. His assertion that Mexican immigrants are “rapists” and “criminals,” likewise, struck a chord, needing little factual footing to cement support for his candidacy. His claim to have watched “thousands and thousands of people” cheering in Jersey City as the World Trade Center buildings collapsed on 9/11 drew discursive life not from any basis in truth but from its cynical wink-and-nod appeal to anti-Muslim sentiment. Each of these declarations links Trump’s spectacular ascent to a series of racial, and reliably racist, assertions, each one resting not on the power of evidence but on that of gut-level, intuitive beliefs. The propagandist, know-nothing excesses of the Trump edifice, then, track, and are themselves tracked by, the genealogies of racial, and racist, epistemic orders, which with visceral obduracy – in the face of incontrovertible countervailing evidence – have long organized truth and fact as profoundly raced categories of power-knowledge.

How does the post-truth/post-fact crisis engage and mediate this racial order of things? How might we understand the predicaments of truth and fact, marked and haunted by racial counter-knowledges, which remain, in the main, repressed, dismissed as laughable, odd, impossible?

In a January 11, 2017 episode of the ABC sitcom Black-ish, the protagonist Dre Johnson (Anthony Anderson), confronted by a white co-worker despairing after the election, responds with an impassioned enumeration of bleak everyday truths about black life. [ ((“Black resilience in America” (Post-election Anthony Anderson monologue). Black-ish (TV series, Season 3, Ep. 12, “Lemon”). ABC, New York, January 11, 2017. ))] In a monologue accompanied by a montage of images representing black experiences, and featuring Billy Holliday’s brooding anti-lynching anthem Strange Fruit on the soundtrack – in effect, dossiers of stirring visual and sonic evidence – Johnson reposits the shameful record of the nation’s racial crimes to explain that Trump’s victory is no cause for heartache to a people for whom the system has rarely worked, and who have long suffered its brutality.

Black-ish screen grab

When confronted about the election, Black-ish‘s Dre Johnson responds with an impassioned enumeration of bleak everyday truths about black life

The scene choreographs a spectacular encounter between dominant and marginal truths, dramatizing the epistemic force with which empirical, fact-based evidence of enduring and persistent racial inequalities remain, for the most part, subordinated to dominant national scripts of a square deal and a fair share bolstered by smug Obama-era conceits of racial progress. Like the “Election Night” skit on NBC’s Saturday Night Live that aired days after the election, in which host Dave Chappelle pokes fun at the visceral sway of authorized truths about racially tolerant rather than blinkered white liberals, and sentimental attachments to an innocent rather than shameful national past, these are counter-knowledges that resonate within black public spheres but which remain, for the most part, assiduously silenced and marginalized.

Labored reiterations of empirical, fact-based truths in the current moment, then, are symptomatic, as the Black-ish episode proclaims, of “knowing what it [feels] like to be black,” of knowing the truth – about climate change, mass deportation, the Muslim ban – despite its dismissal or repression as laughable, odd, impossible. Confronted with challenges that have long bedeviled unpalatable racial knowledges, the current crisis underscores the ethical necessity of “deconstructive jolts” to the disciplinary modalities of what counts as fact and falsehood, and the hard work of opening to skepticism the armature of distortion and erasure necessary for maintaining the epistemic order of a post-truth/post-fact world.

Image Credits:

1. Joe Heenan, January 23, 2017. “This place is packed!” @ThePoke #TrumpArtworks. Author’s screen grab.
2. Bernie Sanders, January 20, 2017. Twitter.
3. CNN, January 20, 2017.
4. Southern Poverty Law Center, Spring 2017.
5. Pew Research Center Fact Tank, 2016.
6. Reuters/Ipsos. June 30, 2016.
7. Black-ish (TV series, Season 3, Ep. 12, “Lemons”), ABC, January 11, 2017. Author’s screen grab from YouTube.

Please feel free to comment.

“I Just Expect There To Be Some Trouble”: Boyz N the Hood and Racialization of Cinema Violence
Caetlin Benson-Allott / Georgetown University

Poster for Boyz N The Hood

Original poster for Boyz N The Hood (John Singleton, 1991).

Although there was relatively little cinema violence during the 1980s, the decade nevertheless changed popular perception of such incidents. Between 1979 and 1988, the US media largely forgot their fear of cinema shootings, or rather it was eclipsed by a larger moral panic over gang violence. Gang activity did increase in the US during this period, but media coverage exaggerated and sensationalized the problem, vilifying all African-American youth by association. As a result, reporters and even some reviewers began predicting cinema violence at films by and about African-American men. The 1979 incidents at screenings of The Warriors had been treated as horrific yet isolated episodes — isolated by their association with one inflammatory film. But between 1988 and 1991, a series of films were accused of soliciting violence by soliciting Black viewers. An entire audience group was both courted and criminalized in advance, so that when violent incidents did occur, they provided confirmation bias for further prejudice and disenfranchisement.

Colors (Dennis Hopper, 1988) was the first film to inspire sustained press coverage about the threat of theater violence. Its depiction of gang life in Los Angeles so alarmed the LAPD that they demanded a private screening approximately one month before the film’s release to determine its potential impact. Afterwards, LA Country Sheriff Sargent Wes McBride predicted that the movie would “leave dead bodies from one end of this town to the other… I wouldn’t be the least surprised if a shooting erupted in a movie theater.” [ (( “Deborah Caulfield, “Colors Director Hopper Defends His Movie on LA Gangs,” Los Angeles Times March 25, 1988, Y18; “Gang Movie Colors Will Trigger Violence,” A1.” ))] Colors opened without incident, but unfortunately, ten days later, David Dawson was fatally shot while standing in line for the film outside a theater in Stockton, California. Dawson was a member of the Crips, and his attacker, Charles Van Queen, was a member of the Bloods, a connection that was overplayed in the press to suggest that gang movies weren’t safe.

Scene from Colors

Danny (Sean Penn) evaluates suspected gang members in Colors (Dennis Hopper, 1988).

Not just gang movies, though — even serious dramas about racism and African-American disenfranchisement were critiqued for courting violence. Hence Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) was excoriated in New York Magazine for potentially inciting riots before it even premiered. Reviewer David Denby predicted that Lee’s film would “create an uproar” and warned that “if some audiences go wild, he’s partly responsible,” while columnist Joe Klein expressed hope that the film would open “in not too many theaters near you” because “black audiences” could “react violently” to its depiction of “a summer race riot.” [ (( “David Denby, “He’s Gotta Have It,” review of Do the Right Thing (Universal film), New York Magazine, June 26, 1989, 53, 54; emphasis mine; Joe Klein, “The City Politic: Spiked?” New York Magazine, June 26, 1989, 14.” ))] Jack Kroll of Newsweek also called the movie “dynamite under every seat.” [ (( “Jack Kroll, “How Hot Is Too Hot; The Fuse Has Been Lit,” review of Do the Right Thing (Universal film), Newsweek, July 3, 1989, 64.” ))] Needless to say, none of them apologized after Do the Right Thing ran without incident. Lee’s movie grossed over $27.5 million on a $6.5 million budget, sufficient success to warrant a cycle of similar films, albeit ones about black-on-black rather than interracial violence. The films of the “ghetto action cycle”—as Amanda Ann Klein and S. Craig Watkins call it [ (( “S. Craig Watkins, “Ghetto Reelness: Hollywood Film Production, Black Popular Culture, and the Ghetto Action Film Cycle,” in Genre and Contemporary Hollywood, ed. Steve Neale (London: British Film Institute, 2002), 236-250, quoted in Amanda Ann Klein, American Film Cycles: Reframing Genres, Screening Social Problems, and Defining Subcultures (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011), 139.” ))] —continue Lee’s politicized violation of “a once-sacrosanct taboo against the portrayal of ‘negative’ images” of African-Americans by African-Americans. [ (( “Salim Muwakkil, “Spike Lee and the Image Police,” Cineaste 14, no. 4 (1990): 35.” ))] These movies were likewise blamed for inciting violence despite their anti-violence messages of personal responsibility, messages that, ironically, downplay the larger social forces undergirding racist and gang violence in this country.

Poster for Do The Right Thing

Poster for New Jack City

Original advertisements for Do The Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989) and New Jack City (Mario Van Peebles, 1991).

The first film of the cycle, New Jack City, premiered on March 8, 1991 — four days after news media unveiled video of Rodney King being beaten by LAPD officers. [ (( “Laura Baker, 7” ))] Yet journalists failed to make that connection when reporting on a riot outside one of the film’s screenings. At the Mann Theater in Los Angeles’s Westwood neighborhood, ticket-holders became upset when denied seats to an oversold show. LAPD were called in, and King’s name became the rallying cry in a protest against institutionalized racism. Reporters only associated the Westwood riot with New Jack City, however, and with the death of Gabriel Williams at another Brooklyn screening. The New York Times translated these and other incidents into a fear-mongering think-piece about how a “Film on Gangs Becomes Part of the World it Portrays.” [ (( “Seth Mydans, “Film on Gangs Becomes Part of the World It Portrays,” New York Times, March 13, 1991, A16. ” ))] The paper later granted producers Doug McHenry and George Jackson an op-ed to argue that “New Jack City doesn’t cause riots,” but the panic had been reborn. [ (( “Doug McHenry and George Jackson, “Missing the Big Picture,” New York Times March 26, 1991, A23.” ))] After New Jack City, the press associated ghetto action films with cinema violence; as Singleton put it, they were “lying in wait” when Boyz N the Hood came out on July 12th of that year. [ (( “Robert Reinhold, “Near Gang Turf, Theater Features Peace,” New York Times, July 15, 1991, A13.” ))]

Although Boyz N the Hood premiered at the Cannes Film Festival — where it received a glowing review from Roger Ebert — its US debut was marred by biased and inflammatory stories of cinema violence. During the film’s opening weekend, twenty of the 829 theaters where it played experienced some fighting or disorder. Shots were fired at cinemas in eight cities, and two people died: Michael Booth, at the Halstead Outdoor Drive-In in Riverdale, Illinois, and Jitu Jones, shot outside a downtown Minneapolis theater. [ (( “John Lancaster, “Film Opens With Wave of Violence,” Washington Post, July 14, 1991, A1; “Minneapolis Youth Second Victim of Violence at Film Showing,” New York Times, July 19, 1991, ” ))] Riots and “melees” were also reported in Orlando and Tukwila, Washington. [ (( “Mike Williams, “Boyz N the Hood Violence Subsides,” Atlanta Journal and Constitution, July 15, 1991, A3.” ))] The LAPD set up defensive barricades in Westwood, fearing a riot similar to the one that accompanied New Jack City (and evidently in denial about the latter’s correlation with the King video). Newspapers sensationalized all of these events; headlines like “Trail of Trouble for Boyz” and “ Film Opens with Wave of Violence” accompanied stories that belied the film’s commercial and critical success. [ (( ““Trail of Trouble for Boyz,” Hollywood Reporter, July 15, 1991, 6; Lancaster, “Film Opens With Wave of Violence,” A1.” ))] In one, an Atlanta exhibitor scoffs, “Frankly, I’m surprised they haven’t banned the movie,” while another quotes an anonymous Columbia executive lamenting, “Who will show these movies anymore?” [ (( “Norma Wagner, “Atlanta-Area Theaters Beef Up Security for Boyz’ Showings,” Atlanta Journal and Constitution, July 14, 1991, A6; John Lancaster, “Film Opens With Wave of Violence,” A1.” ))] Even after the violence ended, newspapers continued to quote sources condemning Singleton’s movie as “just an excuse for getting rowdy.” [ (( “Williams, “Boyz N the Hood Violence Subsides,” A3.” ))] Like McHenry and Jackson, Singleton was called upon to publicly defend his film; he reminded reporters that cinema violence does not justify censoring filmmakers but is rather an “indication of the degradation of American society…a society that breeds illiteracy, economic depravation, and doesn’t educate its kids, and then puts them in jail.” [ (( “Andrea King, “Columbia Backing Up Its Boyz,” Hollywood Reporter, July 15, 1991, 6. ” ))]

Singleton rightly blamed the incidents at Boyz N the Hood — and Colors and New Jack City by extension — on the systematic dispossession of African-Americans, but this salient and important critique differs strikingly from the message of his film. Boyz N the Hood, like other films of the ghetto action cycle, stresses the individual’s personal responsibility to rise above unjust conditions. Its protagonist, Tre (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), avoids the pitfalls of early parenthood and drugs, which entrap his friends, because he has a strong father figure, Jason “Furious” Styles (Lawrence Fishburne), who counsels him on anticipating the consequences of his actions.

Furious and Tre in Boyz N The Hood

Furious Styles (Lawrence Fishburne) advises his son Tre (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) in Boyz N the Hood (John Singleton, 1991).

Furious also soliloquizes on how the impoverishment of black communities benefits white communities, but the film places its allegiances with Tre — who rises above — rather than with Ricky (Morris Chestnut) or Doughboy (Ice Cube), who cannot. As others have noted, personal responsibility is a politically conservative philosophy with high crossover potential for white audiences. [ (( “Kenneth Chan, “The Construction of Black Male Identity in Black Action Films of the Nineties,” Cinema Journal 37, no. 2 (1998): 35-48.” ))] It is to Singleton’s credit that he did not continue this reasoning in press conferences or interviews. But the contradiction does matter, in no small part because some people used the content of films like New Jack City and Boyz N the Hood to interpret the violence that accompanied their premiers. “Personal responsibility” places blame with the shooter, the filmmaker, and sometimes the victim, but it does not ask viewers to question how mass disenfranchisement also breeds violence. It helps decontextualize cinema violence by aligning those involved with the pathologized or irredeemable characters who cannot or will not escape violence in the films. To be sure, most journalists and other pundits report on cinema violence before they’ve seen the films, but as the films’ anti-violence messages are subsequently marshaled for their defense, they point towards the “personal responsibility” of the perpetrators. Unfortunately, the social origins of cinema violence would not be considered by the mainstream press until the twenty-first century, when lack of adequate mental health care became one way of explaining why whites were killing other whites at the movies.

Image Credits:

1. Original poster for Boyz N The Hood
2. Danny (Sean Penn) Evaluates Suspected Gang Members in Colors (Dennis Hopper, 1988) (author’s screen grab)
3. Original Advertisement for Do The Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989)
4. Original Advertisement for New Jack City (Mario Van Peebles, 1991)
5. Furious Styles (Lawrence Fishburne) Advises His Son Tre (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) in Boyz N the Hood (John Singleton, 1991) (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.

Shake My Turban: Alter Egos and Altering Perceptions in Trump’s America
Suzanne Enzerink / Brown University

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The Sequined Sikh Elvis

In the midst of this year’s election season, a 1986 short documentary called Rockin’ with a Sikh resurfaced on social media. The twenty-six minute profile starred Peter Singh, an Indian-born Sikh who ran a hybrid curry/English takeaway restaurant in Swansea, England, by day, and transformed into a Sikh Elvis at night. With songs like “Turbans over Memphis” and “Who’s Sari Now,” Singh modeled that being a devout Sikh and idolizing mainstream American pop cultural icons were not mutually exclusive—in addition to the turban, Mr. Singh sported a full beard in adherence to kesh, one of the five outward manifestations of Sikhism, the practice of allowing hair to grow naturally. “I don’t smoke dope/ I don’t drink Bourbon/ All I want to do/ is shake my turban” became Mr. Singh’s most popular catchphrase, garnering him a cult following that remains to this day. Sikh Elvis was a positive enunciation of a Britain that was globally-oriented and could embody difference without demanding full assimilation. It was a facile multiculturalism, in a way, one able to celebrate ethnic difference superficially whilst ignoring the racism that already permeated Britain and the U.S. in the 1980s— “Everyone especially loves my spicy food. I wish Elvis could taste my spicy foods. I’m sure he would love the papadums,” Singh said for example—but the move remains powerful, symbolically accommodating both religion and popular culture, the national and the global, rather than casting these metrics as in tension.

Fast forward to 2016, and these tensions have yet to be resolved definitively. Large segments of the population still need to be reminded that being an American and being a Sikh — or a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Hindu, etc., for that matter — are not mutually exclusive or oppositional identities. They are, in fact, wholly compatible, yet the vitriol aimed at Captain Khizr Khan’s family by Donald Trump and his supporters readily demonstrates that the potent mix of Islamophobia and Anglo-Christian entitlement still produces a highly exclusionary idea of who can lay claim to the label of “American.” Tangled up in this is an injurious stereotyping of Muslim and Muslim-perceived Americans as terrorists, circulated widely in cultural productions in the aftermath of 9/11. Members of this group are guilty until proven innocent: Donald Trump’s proposed registry and loyalty test are the most blatantly Islamophobic incarnation of this, yet even Hillary Clinton’s suggestion that we need “American Muslims to be part of our eyes and ears” and “part of our Homeland Security” dangerously fuses patriotism with surveillance. As Jasbir Puar and Amit Rai note in their study of how contemporary media has constructed the South Asian, the turban works to “produce the terrorist and the patriot in one body, the turbaned body.”[ ((Jasbir K. Puar and Amit S. Rai, “The Remaking of a Model Minority: Perverse Projectiles under the Specter of (Counter)Terrorism.” Social Text 22.3 (Fall 2004): 82.))] It is through excessive nationalism and self-surveillance that the turbaned subject must seek to redeem itself, but always in vain within this exclusionary white vision of America.

What could be a more powerful critique, then, than taking one of the nation’s dearest and most widely-circulated characters, the very embodiment of American values, as a way of challenging this wounding and decentering its monolithic whiteness? The most compelling and viral challenge to white nationalist definitions of Americanness during this election season came in the form of a beloved American hero, Captain America. Like Sikh Elvis, the iconicity of Captain America lends itself perfectly to show that the idea of Brits or Americans as white males was always a fiction, and an increasingly fantastical one. Sikh Captain America, the alter ego of Vishavjit Singh, a cartoonist from Washington, wears the classic star-spangled costume with a turban, an “A” boldly emblazoned on it. His cartoons—or Sikhtoons—challenge the rhetoric of fear espoused by Trump, the myth of the perpetual foreigner, and misconceptions about turbans, all crucial elements that render Sikh and Muslim Americans “suspect” in the eyes of many Trump supporters.

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Vishavjit Singh’s Sikhtoons

The former are especially vulnerable, as their turbans made them targets for profiling even before 9/11. Sikh Captain America’s role reversal, from terrorist to hero, then powerfully resonated. #sikthoons trended on social media, and sources like Slate, The Washington Post, and The Huffington Post covered Singh during the primaries, and during his trip to the Republican National Convention. With Trump in office, he feels his mission more urgently than ever; his presence is more needed than ever to counter the overt racist displays circulating widely.

Social media propelled Sikh Captain America to fame, but with its relative lack of oversight and lightning quick dissemination, it has also been one of the main outlets for perpetuating stereotypes. After the attacks in Nice, a photoshopped selfie of a Sikh Canadian man named Veerender Jubbal was circulated identifying him as an “Islamic terrorist.” The same thing had happened to Jubbal after the 2015 Paris attacks. Only by bringing into circulation competing narratives, and challenging who gets to define what America(n) is, the turbaned terrorist will begin to erode as the dominant image. By giving the turban positive visibility, Sikh Captain America is simultaneously educating Americans and debunking racist associations.

He is not fighting alone. Actor Riz Ahmed and Heems of rap duo Swet Shop Boys also tackle profiling, both lyrically and visually. Their 2016 song, “T5,” tongue-in-cheek remarks that they “always get a random check when [rocking] the stubble,” highlighting again that hairstyles can impact how others read us racially or ethnically, and how they attempt to glean our political leanings from such readings. The visual work of Sikh Captain America, the uncoupling of the beard and turban with terrorism and coupling it instead with patriotism, thus has direct effects.

The trope of the terrorist is not unique to the United States, and the Swet Shop Boys also ask us to consider how stereotypes travel. Ahmed is British Pakistani, Heems is Indian American. In “T5,” they reference newly-elected London mayor Saadiq Khan as a positive model while simultaneously disparaging Trump. The video opens with audio describing Trump’s proposed “loyalty test” for Muslims, while Riz MC later raps that “Donald Trump wants my exit, but if he press the red button to watch Netflix, bruv, I’m on.” The South Asian diaspora is equally affected by xenophobic impulses, not confined to national borders for inspiration or protected by them from threat. The line also highlights a central irony: Americans will consume productions starring Muslim or Muslim-perceived Americans without hesitation, but this has not yet translated into shifts in thinking that can see beyond stereotype and accord them complexity, diversity, and humanity.

Certain representations complicate things, raising the specter of terrorism only to then challenge it. Scripted shows, for example, have also made efforts to stop the equation of terrorism with brownness, but more mutedly so. ABC’s Quantico, for example, resorts to hypernationalism to offset its criticisms—the FBI trainees of season 1, and CIA recruits of season 2, are willing to risk their lives to protect the safety of the United States, even if the country has conspired against them and wronged them. Priyanka Chopra’s Alex Parrish, an FBI agent of mixed Indian and American descent, is framed for a terrorist attack on Grand Central station. Yet when asked by an Anonymous-inspired group aiming to exonerate her what she would like to tell the 12 million viewers of the live broadcast, she replies: “I love this country.” Even though Alex knows that the real attacker chose her because “in this country I’m an easy person to blame,” a move that relies on an association of brownness with terrorism (as Alex says, “they framed the brown girl”), she never faults the country as a whole for its structural inequalities or racism. In the realm of Quantico, America is not to blame, but certain malevolent actors within it are. It is thus through a hypernationalism that they frame their critique, but for a primetime TV show, it is a gesture at challenging the stereotype of the brown terrorist nevertheless.


Quantico‘s Critique of Muslims-as-Terrorists

Such efforts are especially crucial to diversity and increase the representation of brown Americans who are hypervisible as terrorist stereotypes yet often marginalized when it comes to discussions of discrimination. In October, New York Times-writer Michael Luo was told to “go home to China” by a woman unknown to him on the street. In response, the Times collected and chronicled racist incidents of a similar nature via #ThisIs2016. The hashtag was so powerful—flooding Twitter for days—that The Times invited some respondents to star in a video to tell their story. None were South Asian or Filipino. Invisible again, a group of brown Americans wrote an open letter, noting that their erasure was painful as “our brown skin activates different kinds of stereotypes in this country.”

The stereotypes are generalizing and dangerous. When asked by Lt. Brian James Murphy, who was shot fifteen times by a white supremacist when he responded to calls of an ongoing massacre at a Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, how he would protect the rights of minority groups, Trump’s answer only included the need to combat “radical Islamic terror.” Even Murphy’s remark that 99% of turban-wearing men in the United States are Sikh and not Muslim, was cast aside by Trump. Muslim or Muslim-perceived, American or not, right-wing media and candidates make all of them potential terrorists. The first victim of the last spike in hate crimes in the U.S before Trump., in the aftermath of 9/11, was not coincidentally also a Sikh—Balbir Singh Sodhi, a gas station owner, was killed on September 15 by a man on a mission to shoot “some towelheads” in retaliation for the attacks.

Caught between such spectacular misrepresentation and invisibility, Sikh Captain America really is the hero these United States need, and brown Americans especially. I taught his ‘toons this semester, together with music by Swet Shop Boys. Their transnational archive highlights the interconnectedness of global crises that have seen a rise in hate crimes and increased popularity of the far right (white supremacy) across nations. It is not just Donald Trump or Steve Bannon. The global reach of contemporary media, be it social or entertainment, has provided complexity and visibility where it was lacking. It also supplements scholarly works that have dealt with the same question—by showing their prevalence in current political and media discourses, students were able to discern and dissect stereotypes constructed across genres, that powerfully and detrimentally determine how groups of people are perceived.

Twenty years after Sikh Elvis asked the Brits to embrace his turban as part of the British fabric, rather than at odds with it, #sikhtoons and #ThisIs2016 effect the same here for (South) Asian Americans—but rather than a question, it is now a demand for the full humanity that Trump and his ilk seek to deny them.

Image Credits:
1. The Sequined Sikh Elvis
2. Vishavjit Singh’s Sikhtoons
3. Quantico‘s Critique (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.

Policing Pop Culture: “Danny Meets Andy Griffith” and Representing Southern Law Enforcement
Phoebe Bronstein/University of California, San Diego

screenshot from Danny Meets Andy

A still from the Make Room for Daddy episode “Danny Meets Andy Griffith.”

In February of 1960, The Andy Griffith Show premiered on CBS as a backdoor pilot to Make Room for Daddy (ABC, 1953–57; CBS, 1957–65): “Danny Meets Andy Griffith” (Feb 5 1960). [ ((The earlier ABC incarnation of Make Room for Daddy was called The Danny Thomas Show.)) ] While there is much to say about the unlikely success of Andy Griffith–which premiered at the height of the Civil Rights Movement–this column will focus on the construction of the Southern police in the pilot. “Danny Meets Andy Griffith” provides particular insight, given its timing and topic, into how a popular culture text reflected and obscured anxieties about the police, institutionalized racism, and the South. The end of this column then briefly considers “Danny Meets Andy Griffith” within the context of contemporary pop culture police representations.

Andy Griffith was not CBS’s first attempt at setting a primetime show in the South. Earlier efforts included the pre-emptively canceled Confederate-drama The Gray Ghost (1954) and the season-long Reconstruction-era western Yancy Derringer (1958-1959). But it was the network’s first successful attempt to feature the South in primetime. The region had, before Andy Griffith, posed concerns for networks and advertisers, worried about offending and alienating white Southern audiences with racially progressive television, or even with programs that appeared to critique the racism vividly on display in Civil Rights news broadcasts. [ ((For more on the ways in which Andy Griffith and earlier southern representations negotiated these concerns, see Eric Barnouw’s Tube of Plenty, Stephen Classen’s Watching Jim Crow, and Allison Graham’s Framing the South. )) ]

Central to communicating the terror and violence of the white South were a series of Southern sheriffs featured on nightly news broadcasts [ (( Graham, Allison and Sharon Monteith, “Southern Media Cultures,” in Media, ed. Allison Graham and Sharon Monteith, vol. 18 of The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011, p.17. )) ] . These men were versions of the same model–sweaty, overweight, angry, and ill-spoken types with deep Southern drawls. Their image came to stand for all that was wrong, terrifying, and violent about the region. As Allison Graham and Sharon Monteith note, by 1963, “nationally and internationally circulated images of [Birmingham, Alabama] city police commissioner Bull Connor worked as cultural shorthand, communicating within seconds the reasons for black protests and the kind of violent resistance that would meet them” [ (( Ibid., pp. 21-22. )) ] . These images, which allowed a national audience to see “glimpses of the brutality black citizens had lived with for over a century,” suggested that racism had a particular look and feel and was the fault of a few individual bad men, rather than a systemic problem. [ (( Ibid. )) ]

It is within this violent context that Andy Griffith premiered. The tensions and discomforts of representing the South construct Andy and the sitcom’s whitewashed world from the outset. “Danny Meets Andy Griffith” featured Danny (Danny Thomas) and his family traveling through the rural South by car. [ (( It’s worth noting here that Danny Thomas was Lebanese, which complicates his position in the South in interesting and important ways. )) ] The episode begins as Danny pulls into town behind Sheriff Andy’s police car after Andy has pulled him over for running a stop sign. Danny is frantic and fast-talking with a thick New York accent. Andy moves and speaks more slowly. He takes Danny’s insults as they come, from calling Andy “hayseed” to mocking Andy’s Southern drawl and asserting that the stop sign is a tourist trap meant to trick poor visiting “city slickers” like himself. He even calls Andy the “Jesse James of the police.” Danny insists on pleading his case in front of the justice of the peace (who, of course, happens to be Andy), sure that his Northern rationality will win out. After all, Danny exclaims, “who’s heard of a stop sign with no road.”

Even as Danny insults Andy and the town of Mayberry, Andy remains calm and level-headed. He responds to Danny’s quick-talking outrage with logic and reason. Facing the camera and Danny’s children–and by proxy, the viewers–he explains that, indeed, the town did vote to put in a road six years ago but they’ve only raised enough money for a stop sign. Andy’s calm and fair demeanor renders Danny’s complaints, insults, and his assertion that he’s been duped ridiculous. Against Danny’s Northern brashness and the slew of Southern stereotypes he unleashes–which includes a claim that Andy probably doesn’t even know about television–Andy is calm, kind, and patient, not to mention, handsome. In fact, Andy is as far from a lawless Jesse James as one could possibly imagine.

Like earlier renditions of the police on television–for instance, Joe Friday of Dragnet–Andy’s appearance and mannerisms signal his moral fortitude and trustworthiness. Andy’s patience is epic, and even comic when juxtaposed against Danny’s small-mindedness about him and the South. Through their exchanges, Andy comes across as rational and fair-minded, while Danny appears childlike and petulant. Like Joe Friday and the police of 1950s procedurals, who as Jason Mittell asserts were “part of [the] social order…not to be questioned—at least not on mainstream television,” Andy’s presence as sheriff, justice of the peace, and jailer, carries the same authority [ (( Mittell, Jason. Genre and Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Television. New York: Routledge, 2004, p.41. )) ] . Thus, when Andy charges Danny with $100 and ten days in jail for running a stop sign, we mostly feel empathy for Andy, who has to tolerate Danny’s rudeness, even as we know this punishment is perhaps excessive (and won’t be enforced).

Furthermore, Danny’s subsequent stint in jail is comfort-laden: home-cooked meals from Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier) and a cell door that doesn’t lock. The jail, the pilot suggests, can’t possibly be so bad, when citizens of Mayberry even voluntarily commit themselves to prison. As Danny stands and protests Andy’s position as the all-around law in these parts, a drunk older man stumbles in from the background and ambles up to Andy’s desk, declaring himself “under arrest.” The camera follows him as he locks himself into a cell, the next shot revealing a close-up of Danny and Margaret’s (Jean Hagen) confused expressions.

Reaction to man jailing himself

Danny and Margaret react to the man jailing himself.

At the height of Civil Rights violence and its attendant news coverage, Andy Griffith suggested an entirely different and virtually opposite vision of the white South, where even jails were friendly, despite nightly news reports providing clear evidence to the contrary. If, as Stuart Hall attests, “representation is a practice, a kind of ‘work,’ which uses material objects and effects,” where “the meaning depends, not on the material quality of a thing, but on its symbolic function,” then re-making the white Southern sheriff in the midst of civil rights news coverage on an entirely white sitcom worked to smooth over and re-imagine the symbolic function of Southern law enforcement, and by extension, the region [ (( Hall, Stuart. “The Work of Representation,” in Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1997, pp.25-26. )) ] . Where the Southern sheriff by 1960 signaled all that was horrific and violent about the South, the pilot of Andy Griffith upends this image to envision both the Southern sheriff and Southern law enforcement more broadly as kind, compassionate, and above all fair. After all, Andy doesn’t even carry a gun and instead carries out Mayberry’s justice system with a gentle paternal touch.

Andy brings food to Danny

Andy brings Danny food in jail.

The set of complex and conflicting representational maneuvers enacted in “Danny Meets Andy Griffith” to re-make the South as safe provides a sustained example of how ideas about the police were tethered to ideas about America. This narrative smoothed over and obscured the cracks in the legal and political system which the Civil Rights Movement made glaringly visible. Notions of the police as the moral center still persist in contemporary pop culture and in many primetime police procedurals, from Law & Order to Major Crimes, Bones, Elementary, and the recently canceled Castle, to name just a few. More often than not, even when a corrupt cop plot arises, the episode resolves with the bad officer being jailed, killed, or at least dismissed. This plot device suggests that it is not the police system that is corrupt, but rather that bad policing is caused by bad individuals.

We must pay attention to contesting narratives, more often than not caught on tape, about systemic police violence–from the death of Sandra Bland in police custody to the murders of Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castille, Alton Sterling, and too many more. Looking back at “Danny Meets Andy Griffith,” we can see how the episode mocked racism and the attendant violence supported, enacted, and often condoned by Southern law enforcement. This vision was extremely effective in making the South safe for primetime viewers: Andy Griffith became one of the most successful television shows to ever air. The pilot, then, reminds us that police representations in popular culture still serve a dangerous ideological purpose that must be questioned, historicized, and, ultimately, re-imagined.

Image Credits:
All images are author’s screen grabs from Make Room For Daddy episode “Danny Meets Andy.”

Please feel free to comment.

“Its Not Just a Doll; It’s a Social Movement”: Investing in Black Toys Then and Now
Avi Santo / Old Dominion University

Healthy Roots

In my previous post I explored some of the rhetorical and representational strategies used by toy start-ups pitching STEM products for girls through crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. In this post I want to compare those campaigns with ones for toys aimed at African American girls and focused on helping them to overcome internalized racism and colorism with regards to their appearance. Healthy Roots and Naturally Perfect successfully raised funds to manufacture lines of dolls that came in different skin tones (yet all identified as “Black”) featuring hair similar in texture to African American women that could be styled in ways evocative of the African diaspora. I also compare these crowd-funded initiatives with an earlier attempt by Shindana in the mid-to-late-1970s to produce toys for African American children. In triangulating Healthy Roots and Naturally Perfect’s campaigns in relation to GoldieBlox and Shindana I hope to capture how notions of play and of power operate differently today for African American-led ventures into children’s culture.

Naturally Perfect

Healthy Roots

Healthy Roots and Naturally Perfect dolls capture the diversity of skin tones found in the Black diaspora. Where Naturally Perfect (top) identifies all four ‘girls’ as African-American, Healthy Roots (bottom) matches skin tone with geography and disperses its ‘girls’ across the globe.

Much like with their STEM-toys-for-girls-focused peers, Healthy Roots and Naturally Perfect foreground the organic relationship between their company’s founders and the products they were pitching. Both Yelitsa Jean-Charles and Angelica Sweeting positioned themselves as African American female entrepreneurs whose desire to empower young Black girls went hand-in-hand with their identification of a notable gap in the market that their products could fill, thus walking that fine line required of social entrepreneurship in linking ‘doing good’ with ‘making money.’

Unlike Debbie Sterling (GoldieBlox), Jean-Charles and Sweeting downplayed their pioneer status in favor of foregrounding their own victimization by societal beauty standards as inspiring their endeavors. If the former talked about wanting more girls to follow her into careers in science and engineering, the latter reminisced about feeling ostracized as children and frustrated with their own appearance. Jean-Charles begins her pitch by noting, “Growing up, I suffered from many insecurities about my skin color and hair texture. I was often told that in order to be beautiful you had to have long, flowing hair or fair skin.” Meanwhile, Sweeting explains how developing the Angelica Doll proved therapeutic: “As I began to develop The Angelica Doll and give serious thought to the things I wanted to do for young girls, I realized that I had been influenced by society’s standard of beauty for as long as I could remember. Here I am – 27 years old, and I am honestly just beginning to walk into who I am, my natural beauty.”

Yelitsa Jean-Charles

Angelica Sweeting

Yelitsa Jean-Charles (top) and Angelica Sweeting (bottom) both claim that the ideas behind their doll lines emanated from their own struggles to see their own beauty as children.

While I have no reason to doubt either of these women’s claims, their rhetorical focus on personal journeys toward self-love over career and education-driven aspirations (Jean-Charles identifies as a children’s illustrator while Sweeting offers no information about her career path other than being a wife and mother) is somewhat revealing of how white privilege works. Where Sterling et al. advocate for toys that get girls excited about science, engineering and technology, Jean-Charles and Sweeting suggest that Black girls first need to rebuild their self-esteem before they can aspire to barrier-breaking career choices. Tellingly, Sweeting offers “The Angelica Doll is a courageous, bold entrepreneur full of self belief, natural beauty, and perseverance.”

Angelica Doll

Angelica’s entrepreneurial spirit only emerges once she experiences self-love.

Though they positioned themselves as outsiders, both Healthy Roots and Naturally Perfect towed the industry line in positing toys as the solution to social problems while ignoring both the family and socio-economic environments in which play takes place. As Elizabeth Chin argues, it serves the economic and cultural interests of the toy industry to claim “it is children’s relationships with things rather than people that is most critically important for their sense of self”[ (( Chin, Elizabeth. “Ethnically-Correct Dolls: Toying with the Race Industry.” American Anthropologist 101:2 (June 1999): 305-321. ))]. Healthy Roots asserts that “to solve [the] problem” of people of color being “told to change the natural texture of their hair in order to go to school or get a job” their doll line will “educate children and mothers about the joy and beauty of natural hair.” While there is little doubt that the Healthy Roots dolls might be tools that parents can use to encourage their children to appreciate their hair in the face of ongoing cultural stigmas and institutional racism, the dolls alone are not going to undo these problems. Yet, the assertion that instilling pride in how Black girls look at themselves will serve as a catalyst for action is built directly into the company’s mantra: “Healthy Roots is not just a doll. It is a social movement.”

Despite the rhetoric of transformation it is also important to note that A) both companies accept without question the notions that girls of any color want to play with dolls and that self-love is rooted in “broadening” beauty categories rather than overturning them. In this regard, these initiatives like the STEM-for-girls ones, re-inscribe and reinforce gender norms when it comes to play reassuring consumers that ‘change’ is truly skin deep while biology remains intact. B) Both sets of dolls are priced between $65-88 with an additional $30 required to acquire the Big Book of Hair that teaches kids how to style natural Black hair (whereas an 18-inch Frozen Elsa doll will cost $25-30 and your average children’s book is under $10). While this clearly makes the dolls unaffordable for most people (even as it acknowledges the existence of a middle-class Black constituency who might buy into the concept if not the actual product), it also speaks to limitations encountered by current-day toy entrepreneurs in terms of controlling manufacturing costs. Indeed, both Kickstarter campaigns identified their number one need as raising capital to meet manufacturer minimum order requirements, suggesting where the real product cost comes in (Naturally Perfect stated that it needed to raise $25K to meet the 1000 unit minimum demanded by its manufacturer, which works out to $25/doll excluding prototyping, packaging, shipping, and other expenses). And finally, C) Health Roots makes a point of connecting the ‘social movement’ inspired by its products to the need to “bring diversity to the toy aisle,” a correlation that again situates ‘change’ comfortably within consumerist ideals, but also seems oblivious to prior efforts to sell non-white toys at retail.

Big Book of Hair

Images from the Big Book of Hair that demonstrate how to style Black hair

That neither campaign showed any awareness of the historical company they keep is not surprising; crowd-funding strategies demand a focus on the new rather than on continuity. Nevertheless, a quick look back reveals that there have been efforts beginning in the early 1970s to diversify toy lines. While early mainstream efforts like Mattel’s Colored Francie doll were met with criticism that they merely painted the dolls brown and used pre-Civil Rights era language like ‘colored’ to describe the toy [ (( see Ann DuCille’s Skin Trade for an extensive discussion. DuCille, Ann. Skin Trade. Harvard University Press, 1996. ))], the rise of the Black-owned Shindana toy company in 1968 offers both a important contrast with and cautionary tale for today’s efforts.

70s Toy Ad

Efforts to ‘diversify’ doll lines in the early 1970s typically involved dying existing molds brown. The Talking J.J. Doll was one of Shindana’s early successes

Shindana, which means ‘competitor’ in Swahili, was an initiative launched by Operation Bootstrap following the 1965 Watts riots. Operation Bootstrap was a “self-help job training program” that emerged following the Congress of Racial Equality’s strategic shift from “nonviolent direct action to community organizing” [ (( Ellis, Russel. “Operation Bootstrap.” People Making Places: Episodes in Participation, 1964-1984. Institute for the Study of Social Change, University of California, Berkeley. No date. Accessed April 4, 2016. ))]. The organization sponsored black-owned businesses in poor neighborhoods that fed part of their earnings back into their local communities in the form of jobs and infrastructure. The ideal of “profit-turned-to-education” was imagined as not simply improving lives in impoverished Black neighborhoods, but also leading to a politicized Black citizenship that had the clout and resources to push back against those in power [ (( see Russel Ellis’ People Making Places for an extended history of the organization. ibid. ))]. As Lou Smith, Operation Bootstrap founder and Shindana’s CEO explained, “The answer I have come up with is that we must use the system’s weapon against it. It is a must that we establish our own economic base from which to finance our struggle… All the profits from these ventures should be used to finance the work of the organization as well as creating jobs for our ghetto-trapped brother… In short, we must inject the “soul”of the black community into the economic area” [ (( Quoted in Ellis. ibid. ))].

A significant aspect of Operation Bootstrap’s approach was a refusal to rely on federal assistance, instead looking to find investors among liberal-leaning members of the business community. Mattel gave Shindana an estimated $500,000 in loans and technical assistance to launch its operation. At its height, Shindana operated a factory in South Central Los Angeles that employed 70 people manufacturing dolls that were based on ‘ethnically correct’ Black features (Baby Nancy, Talking Tamu), Black celebrities (talking Flip Wilson, Red Foxx, and Jimmie Reeves plush dolls as well as plastic dolls based on the likenesses of Marla Gibbs and O.J. Simpson), and board games rooted in African American culture like The Jackson 5 Action Game and The Afro-American History Mystery Game. Sales reached $2 Million in 1975.

Shindana's 1978 Toys

Shindana's 1978 Toys

Pages from Shindana’s 1978 toy catalog showcase their diversity of product lines

Ann DuCille suggests that Mattel’s investment in Shindana was not as altruistic as it may have seemed as the company not only used Shindana as an idea incubator for how to reach Black consumers but also piggybacked on the company’s early market success to release a new set of Christie dolls, billed as Barbie’s Black friend. The size of Mattel’s operation meant that it could manufacture toys in higher volume at lower costs, which in turn forced Shindana to begin importing parts from China to keep its pricing competitive leading to layoffs at the Shindana factory. To complicate matters further, the support Mattel offered Shindana had largely been in the form of retail distribution assistance, which meant that when Mattel was ready to release its own set of Black dolls, it was easy to squeeze Shindana off store shelves. Shindana ceased operation in 1983.

Shindana's Success

Shindana’s success would prove its undoing as companies like Mattel flooded the market with Black dolls and toys while mimicking Shindana’s marketing

Coming back full circle to Healthy Roots and Naturally Perfect it quickly becomes clear how placing their efforts in historical context complicates both the business plans and the politics they advocate. The keys to Shindana’s early success and subsequent downfall were controlling manufacturing but not distribution (as well as perhaps being too trusting of their investors’ goodwill). In contrast, Healthy Roots and Naturally Perfect do not own their own means of production but have some modicum of control over distribution in the form of direct sales. But their price points make it all but impossible to find retail partners like Wal-Mart or Target, leaving boutique and specialty stores not especially known for catering to minority clientele. Ultimately, diversifying store shelves remains an obstacle both then and now, though for different reasons. And while Healthy Roots and Naturally Perfect have not sought assistance from mainstream manufacturers like Mattel, that doesn’t mean that industry leaders don’t see crowd-funding as a form of market research for determining emerging consumer trends. As my opening post about Project MC2 argued, MGA Entertainment developed a STEM-based lifestyle brand in response to the successful incursions companies like GoldieBlox had made with millennial parents through Kickstarter.

Of greater significance, perhaps, is the clear shift from a community-based form of identity politics to an individuated one. Where Shindana saw empowering African Americans by creating Black toys as intertwined with creating Black jobs, Healthy Roots and Naturally Perfect define empowerment almost exclusively in neoliberal terms as helping Black girls find self-love. Accordingly, external challenges to the Black community are overcome by individuals acquiring commodities that boost their self-confidence and teach them how to turn a social stigma into a stylish form of self-expression. If investing in Shindana was positioned as an investment in African American economic self-determination, an investment in these newer enterprises is marketed as an investment in oneself (or in one’s daughter, niece or sister), but not in a Black infrastructure that might combat institutionalized racism.

Image Credits:

1. Healthy Roots Cover Image
2. Naturally Perfect
3. Healthy Roots
4. Yelitsa Jean-Charles
5. Angelica Sweeting
6. Angelica Doll
7. Big Book of Hair
8. 70s Toy Ad
9. Shindana’s 1978 Toys (Girls)
10. Shindana’s 1978 Toys (Boys)
11. Shindana’s Success

Please feel free to comment.

Shady is the New Black
Bambi Haggins / Arizona State University

The Shady Protagonists

The “Shady” Protagonists

In the Urban Dictionary, there are multiple definitions of the word “shady”— “sly,” “corrupt,” “sketchy,” and “underhanded.” Yet, despite the negative tenor of this popular parlance, in terms of protagonists in quality drama on television, shady is the new black—literally and figuratively.

Given that the televisual preeminence of the Super Negro—and, later, African American—has waned over the years, how does the new televisual visibility of Black women change the idealization paradigm, which used to assuage the misgivings of mainstream audiences? By reflecting on notions of taste and quality in television in relation to Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) in Scandal (ABC 2012-present), Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) in How To Get Away With Murder (ABC 2014-present) and Cookie Lyon (Taranji P. Henson) in Empire (Fox 2015-present), this brief rumination offers thoughts on how and why those who would formerly have been Supers have become progressively more shady.

Pierre Bourdieu states, “[Taste] functions as a sort of social orientation, a ‘sense of one’s place,’ guiding the occupants of a given…social space… towards the practices or goods which befit occupants of [their] position.”[ ((Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984) 20.))] Thus, for Bourdieu, taste, the ability to make discriminating judgments about the aesthetic and the artistic, is inextricably tied to class. However, race and/or ethnicity and/or gender surely play a role as well. When thinking intersectionally about the ways in which a “sense of one’s place” is constructed and enforced, the word “discriminating” takes on a dual meaning. While Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood state that “Goods are neutral, their uses are social; they can be used as fences or bridges,” I can’t help wondering whether aesthetic and artistic “goods” (read: television) can ever be seen as neutral or separated from the social.[ ((Mary Douglas, Baron Isherwood. The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption. (New York: Basic Books: 1979) 12.))] In actuality, television—especially shows lauded as “quality”—are always both “fences and bridges.”

Quality and taste are highly subjective. However, what is considered quality is determined by taste, which, in turn, depends upon myriad elements. This brings me to an astute observation from Noah Berlatsky of The Guardian regarding #OscarSoWhite: “Prejudice is solidified, and enforced, through institutions. But it starts out as an aesthetic preference– a dream about who is good and who is bad, who matters and who doesn’t.”[ ((Noah Bertlansky, “#OscarsSoWhite: how questions of diversity are inextricably linked to taste.” The Guardian. 3 February 2016. Accessed 9 February 2016.))] In quality television, more traditional heroes have been replaced by decidedly darker fare, antiheroes such as the neurotic mobster and family man, Tony (James Gandolfini) on The Sopranos (HBO 1999-2007) and Walter White (Bryan Cranston), the science teacher turned meth kingpin on Breaking Bad (A&E 2008-2013). Clearly, Tony and Walter are shady but their reprehensible acts do prevent the audience from having moments of identification and even genuine empathy for them—a sort of narrative white male privilege. Olivia Pope, Annalise Keating and Cookie Lyon are in more precarious positions which require that something, besides the vestiges of Black exemplarism and questionable archetypes of Black womanhood, cut the shadiness: suffering seems to be required in order for them to be redeemable.

Three Shades of Shady

Three Shades of Shady

The powerful women leads of Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, and Empire represent three shades of shady with a healthy side of suffering. Olivia Pope maintains the closest connection to the Supers of the past and is “elegantly shady.” Kerry Washington’s Olivia exudes exemplarism: the Prada-clad “gladiator in a suit” “handles” crises, wields power for the benefit of the elite and the underdog and embodies privilege as a product of her 1% upbringing. Yet, her “white hat” status is problematic: she stole a presidential election, covered up crimes, condoned torture (for a “good” cause), and had an affair with the President of the United States (Tony Goldwyn), which went legit before going wrong. Olivia’s elegantly shady is inflected by Sally Hemmings/Jezebel tropes even though, in the Shondaland spirit of colorblindness, her Blackness is served up more as narrative garnish than a culturally specific entrée. Yet, Olivia’s suffering is personal and public: from her “troubled” parental relations (her mom, believed dead, is actually a terrorist; her distant father leads a secret Black Ops organization and is her constant foe) to her relationship with Fitz, which leads to her being held hostage and in danger of being sold to the highest bidder on her way to becoming the de facto First Lady, a constricting role she is ultimately compelled to reject.

Viola Davis portrays the badass version of elegantly shady as Annalise Keating, a brilliant law professor and defense attorney, who inspires both fear and awe. Ethically-challenged and fiercely independent, the designer-clad and coiffed Annalise teaches a class on “How To Get Away With Murder.” She is driven to clear her clients, manipulate the legal system, and control her personal relationships, whether with her husband, Sam (Tom Verica), her cop lover, Nate (Billy Brown), or her elite student corps, particularly, Wes (Alfred Enoch), of whom she is uncharacteristically protective. Despite the colorblind ethos that informs the series (also a Shondaland product), Annalise, formerly Anna Mae, and her litany of traumas (including sexual abuse, the loss of a child and the violent and complicated death of a husband) resonates with painful aspects of Black womanhood. HTGAWM survives its outlandish narrative twists more because of what Davis brings to the screen than what is written on the page—as illustrated in the scene that set Black Twitter aflame, when Davis made the choice to remove her wig in a particularly dramatic moment of frustration and vulnerability.

Then, there is Cookie Lyon, played by Taranji P. Henson, the breakout star of Empire. From her first scene, clad in a skintight leopard dress and a fur, when released from a 17-year stint in prison for drug trafficking, Cookie is clearly a force of nature. While arguably, Lee Daniels and Danny Strong’s series is essentially Dynasty meets Love and Hip Hop, Cookie is a noble diva: a Black woman who is down with those she loves no matter what, through it all, the good and the bad, she is “ride or die” shady. Cookie is a fierce matriarch, who, having been separated from her children, seeks to win back their love and to protect them from any threat—including their father, and the love of her life, hip hop mogul, Lucious Lyon (Terence Howard), her charming and deadly ex who used her drug money to fund his music career before divorcing her. While Cookie’s sassy, sexualized and street construction can be seen as problematic in that it plays into various stereotypes of urban Black femininity, her suffering is taken as matter of fact—it is what it is, which is disheartening for other reasons. Empire’s Cookie is not as complex or conflicted as either Scandal’s Olivia or HTWAWM’s Annalise. Yet, of the three, she is the least damaged and damaging to those around her despite the trauma she has endured (poverty, incarceration, abandonment), and because of her unwavering sense of self. She is also unapologetically Black.

Viola Davis' Emmy Acceptance Speech

Viola Davis’ Emmy Acceptance, 2015

Olivia, Annalise and Cookie may signal more expansiveness in televisual representations of Black women. The passionate assertion about opportunity made by Viola Davis after her historic Emmy win (above) speaks to the continued need for more roles for Black actors and varied representations of Blackness. Nevertheless, these three shades of shady are still in uncomfortable conversation with the always contingent space occupied by Black womanhood on American television.

Image Credits:
1. The Shady Protagonists
2. Three Shades of Shady
3. Viola Davis’ Emmy Acceptance Speech

Please feel free to comment.

Not Your Grandmother’s “Super”: Julia, Olivia and Waning Black Exceptionalism
Bambi Haggins / Arizona State University

Two Generations of

Two Generations of “Supers”

When Diahann Carroll and Kerry Washington appeared together onstage at the 65th annual Emmys, the nature of the pairing seemed historic: Carroll was the first African-American woman nominated for an Emmy for her role as the original Super Negro in the situation comedy, Julia (NBC 1968-1971), and Washington’s performance as “Olivia Pope” in Scandal (ABC 2012-present), arguably, the Super African American 2.0, had earned her the first nomination for Best Actress in a Dramatic Series. In terms of optics, the appearance of these two Black actors being showcased for their exemplary roles would seem to signify how far we have come in terms of Black female representation but, of course, it’s not that clear cut.

Putting aside the ways in which these characters play into stereotypes associated with Black femininity, I intended for this brief discussion of Julia and Olivia, the female Super Negro and Super African American 2.0, respectively, to question how and whether Black exemplarism informs the televisual construction of Black women. After all, both roles have exemplar status in terms of their character construction, their style, and their ability to assimilate (and excel) in the societal mainstream. Separated by decades, Julia and Scandal are very different in terms of genre and the popular mores they reflect. However, to some extent, both conform to idealized notions of race relations in their given era. Just as significantly, the construction of these Black female leads establishes them as “credits to their race” in response to era-appropriate notions of respectability politics. However, I wonder whether the new exemplars actually are “the best and the brightest constructed so as not to challenge or threaten the American mainstream.” [ ((Aniko Bodroghkozy. “Television and the Civil Rights Era.” African Americans and Popular Culture: Theater, Film, and Television (2008): 221.))]

The Politics of Respectability

The Politics of Respectability

As the distant ideological cousin to the “City Upon the Hill” ethos of American exceptionalism, this notion of Black exemplarism is tied to a pragmatic imperative which, for many American Blacks, is driven by the old familial tenet, “You have to be twice as good to get half as far.” On some level, exemplarism has traditionally informed the aspirational desires of Blacks in America—from DuBois’ Talented 10th to the neat, almost formal appearance of civil rights protestors, from the de facto prohibition against President Obama looking too “angry black man” to the continued investment in the need for “positive” representations of Blackness. Efforts to control the image are ongoing —from the NAACP boycott of Blatz Beer that forced Amos ‘n’ Andy off the air in the 1950s to the late 1990s threatened “brownout” against network television regarding the dearth of quality representations of people of color. Nevertheless, because the medium of television has the greatest ability to impact “the hearts and minds” of mainstream America, the struggle over televisual representations of Blackness, in general, and Black femininity, specifically, continues. While Julia Baker and Olivia Pope each signify that a certain amount of overcoming has taken place, they are reflections and refractions of the Black American condition through the lens of industrial conventional wisdom.

As the designer clad, Mrs. Miniver of color (when not in her beautifully tailored nurse whites), Carroll’s Julia was the kind of ideal Negro that (at least theoretically) much of middle America wouldn’t mind moving in next door. In 1968, former Beulah writer, Hal Kanter, created Julia in response to Ralph Bunche’s call for more “positive” representations of Negroes on television. By the time the series premiered, MLK and RFK had been assassinated and the visions for social justice and peace associated with the sixties were fading. Into this milieu, this series about a widowed mother and her son living happily in a fundamentally white Los Angeles, may have marked a historic moment, but it seemed to speak to a different and more optimistic time in the decade. Indeed, there was blowback from Black and white audiences: the former because Julia was fundamentally cut off from a larger Black community and the latter, particularly in Southern markets, because of the naturalized depiction of integration.

In 2012, Shonda Rhimes, the Black show runner extraordinaire, had already gained acclaim for the success of Grey’s Anatomy and its use of colorblind casting when she created Scandal. [ ((For an excellent analysis of colorblind casting, see Kristen J. Warner, “The Racial Logic of Grey’s Anatomy Shonda Rhimes and Her ‘Post-Civil Rights, Post-Feminist’ Series.” Television & New Media (2014): 1-17.))] Inspired by the crisis management expert, Judy Smith, who worked with the George H.W. Bush administration, Rhimes gave us Olivia Pope, whose “…life is full of contradictions and innumerable complexities, the likes of which we haven’t seen in black women’s lives as represented in mainstream culture.” Yet, as Mia Mask asserts, “Even in communities of color, folks are not certain whether Rhimes’ Scandal is a progressive step in an anti-essentialist direction or a regressive move backward toward a reconstituted Jezebel-in-bed-with-Massa stereotype.”[ ((Mia Mask. “A Roundtable Conversation on Scandal” The Black Scholar (2015 )Vol. 45, No. 1: 3–9.))]

Indeed, 2012 was a year of contradictions. The first Black President had been re-elected. Anti-Black racism was being exhibited with greater impunity (including overtly racist anti-Obama propaganda [ ((Bumper stickers stated “Don’t Re-Nig” and chairs were lynched. The latter was inspired by Clint Eastwood’s speech at the Republican National Convention, in which he spoke to an empty chair (President Obama, in absentia).))]). The killing of an unarmed Black teen in a hoodie by a neighborhood watch volunteer acted as the catalyst for a hashtag, a moment and a movement: #BlackLivesMatter (BLM).

Black Lives Matter Protest

Black Lives Matter Protest

As Alicia Garza, one of the movement’s co-founders, explained the movement was “a call to action for Black people after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was posthumously placed on trial for his own murder and the killer, George Zimmerman, was not held accountable for the crime he committed. It was a response to the anti-Black racism that permeates our society.” [ ((Alicia Garza, “A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement.” The Feminist Wire October 7,2014 Accessed December 23, 2015.))] BLM, started by three Black queer women, challenges tenets of Black exemplarism in terms of its leadership and by rejecting assimilationist impulses to succeed and survive: this is not your grandfather’s civil rights movement.

Thus, the construction of the Super African-American 2.0 is complicated in terms of socio-historical context and industrial imperatives. As I mulled over how one might characterize this new iteration, it occurred to me that the Super’s mixture of exemplary qualities had to be cut by moral ambiguity. After all, in the new millennial quality television, some moral ambiguity is required: the anti-hero is the new hero. You don’t get to Olivia by simply creating a character with greater agency than Julia, and less perfection personified than the Super African American 1.0, Clair Huxtable. Arguably, this conflicted, new exemplar is not your 20th century Super Negro. Olivia Pope, the best political “fixer” in Washington D.C., “wears the white hat” as she “handles” crises (usually for elite clientele) while also wielding power and claiming privilege. On a personal level, Olivia functions best amidst emotional turbulence and perpetual dysfunction.[ ((The unreasonable loyalty of her “the gladiators in suits, ”and the love of powerful white men, including the married President (Tony Goldwyn), defy reason as does her relationship with father (Joe Morton), who seeks to control (and protect) her, while running an all powerful secret government organization.))]

Olivia Pope

Olivia Pope

Is Olivia Super African American 2.0? Maybe. However, as the idealized and messy, the best and beautifully broken, and the privileged champion of the elite and the underdog, she is also, to use the vernacular, kind of “shady”—and there is something genuinely compelling about that. I will expand upon this in my next essay, “Olivia, Annalise and Cookie: Three Shades of Shady.”

Image Credits:
1. Two Generations of “Supers”
2. The Politics of Respectability
3. Black Lives Matter Protest
4. Olivia Pope (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.

Miss Representations: No Room for Blackness or Feminism on Mad Men’s Sets
Whitten Overby / Cornell University

The Mad Men season 4 promotional poster

The Mad Men season 4 promotional poster

As some have noted but few have probed, Mad Men, Matthew Weiner’s critically-lauded, recently departed, dolled up soap opera about white masculine decline and white female ascent in the 1960s New York ad agency Sterling Cooper, has a racial and feminist representation problem. The Women’s Liberation, Civil Rights and Black Power movements were fermenting during the 1960 to 1970 time period covered by the show, but, save for two peripheral African-American female secretarial figures, Mad Men problematically asserts the dominance of the white, straight, affluent male gaze within both its historical period and its viewing present. While this male gaze, especially as enacted by the show’s anti-hero protagonist, Don Draper, dominates the spaces of the agency’s white and black female workers, this series of three columns tackles a broad representational issue: first, against common claims that Mad Men is feminist, I argue that its corporate modernist sets reveal the show to be a perpetuator of white patriarchal domination of the American workplace and, secondly, how Mad Men’s refusal to explore how spaces of disenfranchised and segregated black characters echoes broader discriminatory practices within architectural and televisual creative cultures. Mad Men’s modernist office sets facilitate the show’s systemic perpetuation of the American masculinist creative culture as well as the racial and gendered divides between black and white, male and female American citizens.

As I see every year in the designs of my first year architecture students, architectural history, theory, and design cultures continue to be dominated by the modernist aesthetic found in the Sterling Cooper office sets. Mad Men’s season four promotional poster expresses the overt whiteness and maleness of this aesthetic, with Don standing in a crisp, empty, ready-to-be-dominated corner office staring out onto a sea of other skyscrapers. In design but also American popular culture, the skyscraper is, to be blunt, conceived to be symbolic of a giant penis and thus bespeaks the masculine domination of space. In the immediate postwar period, the modernist Manhattan skyscraper represents corporate restructuring and the concomitant solidification of binary American gender politics, with women only occupying low-level positions or, worse yet and as Betty Friedan decried in 1963, The Organization Man’s homemaking other.[ (( See Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: W.W. Norton, 1963) and William H. Whyte, The Organization Man (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1956). ))]

The final shot of the Mad Men opening credits

Final shot of the Mad Men opening credits

Architect Mies van der Rohe smoking a cigar

Architect Mies van der Rohe smoking a cigar

Mies van der Rohe and his Seagram Building are the premiere postwar articulation of this skyscraper, PR-friendly patriarchal design culture. In its 2014 Venice Biennale show Elements, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture called Seagram a “monument,” and especially noted its use of the new partition wall to enable its interior spatial flexibility. The offices of Mad Men’s ad agency in seasons four through seven have partition walls and reflect not only the rapid growth of corporate America but also the spatial politics by which its male partners dictate the contents and borders of their office’s partition walls. Moreover, Mies’ most famous dictum, “less is more,” echoes the hard, universalizing, catchphrase-centered culture of midcentury masculine advertising. But the most striking correlation between Mies and Mad Men comes in the opening credit’s final shot. The animated ad mad is pictured from behind, smoking a cigarette, while Mies is usually photographed smoking a cigar. Both are upper middle class, professionalized white males iconized by the leisurely intake of tobacco in private offices while women toil away in undivided, exposed office spaces. If, as Marxist spatial theorist Henri Lefebvre claims, Mies is the leading architect of “a space characteristic of capitalism,” then Don Draper and other ad men are those spaces’ premier tenants.[ (( Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, translated by Donald Nicholslon-Smith (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1991), 126. ))]

It is thus within the public and private spaces of the skyscraper office that Mad Men’s white, straight males make the final creative decisions that dictate their agency’s future. Echoing this fictional spatial narrative, the creative culture of twentieth and twenty-first century architecture has been almost entirely white and male, in part explaining how that demographics’ most popular corporate architectural style continues to dominate design culture—like, normative, homogenous bodies producing like, normative, homogenous spaces. Corporate modernism’s history is one long Great Man Theory and, despite Spike Lee’s 1991 film Jungle Fever, which has a black male architect protagonist, in 2007 only 1% of registered architects were black and, in 2004, only 20% were women. Architecture school enrollment statistics reported in 2012 reveal a slightly different story, with only 5% black but 43% female. [ (( See (1) Craig Wilkins, The Aesthetics of Equity: Notes on Race, Space, Architecture, and Music (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007) and (2) Jenna M. McKnight, “Why the Lack of Black Students?,” Architecture Record (November 2012), available online at ))] The 2014 employment numbers at ad agencies are even more depressing: only 5% of employees were black, while only 4% of women were creative directors.

Modernism first emerged in Europe in the early twentieth century but made its American splash with MoMA’s 1932 International Style architecture exhibition. The show’s curators, Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock, selected primarily domestic architectures that represented a terse, clean, and simple emphasis on a formalist geometric purity—rectilinearity—executed, in part, through open floor plans and windows with streaming sunlight. Johnson is perhaps the most important figure in twentieth-century American architecture and his public persona demonstrates the convergence of the three of the most significant midcentury mass media (television, advertising, and modernist architecture): as an openly gay man, he was an interloper in a heteronormative straight professional culture; as an architect, he collaborated with Mies on the Seagram Building, for which he designed some of its key interiors; as a curator at MoMA, in 1947 he put on the first Mies van der Rohe solo exhibition anywhere and, in 1988, he dubbed a group of “deconstructivist architects” the stylistic innovators succeeding his International Style modernists; and, as architectural theorist Beatriz Colomina argues, Johnson, despite his avowed rejection of television and other mass visual media because “[only] architecture is how you enclose space,” [ (( This Philip Johnson quote comes from his three part, 1976 Camera Three television interview, which aired on CBS. ))] was “like a TV personality…a TV program, a reality TV show that ran longer than anyone could have imagined.” [ (( Beatriz Colomina, Domesticity at War (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 191. ))] Johnson was also like an ad man for elite architectural taste in America, coronating successive waves of architects like television producers created stars and ad men created verbal and visual slogans. Postwar American architecture was thus largely the product of a white, male advertising campaign that only once over its eighty-year span included women in its canon.

Spearheaded by Johnson, who turned high architectural culture into a mass consumable commodity expounded in clear, simple, marketable characteristics, the integration of television, advertising , and corporate modernism constitute what I consider to be the postwar period’s actual military-industrial complex. All three ‘creative’ professions were giant corporate ventures by Mad Men’s 1960 start, and they all— ironically, given their overlapping production of solely mass media—relied upon the elite patriarchal associations of architectural modernism’s history. While introduced in 1932, modernism did not become the dominant architectural style in America until the immediate postwar period when, as American architect Kenneth Reid wrote in 1942, the national design culture was looking for “leaders of undeniable maleness who are bold and forthright and stoutly aggressive” to articulate the booming corporate interests represented by Madison Avenue ad agencies. [ (( Quote taken from Andrew Shanken, 194x: Architecture, Planning, and Consumer Culture on the Home Front (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 5. The quote is from Kenneth Reid, “New Beginnings,” Pencil Points 24 (January 1943), 242. ))]

It was not just ad agencies like Sterling Cooper that used corporate modernism as tools of advertising and patriarchal domination. The Big Three and their local affiliates built new modernist television production facilities and corporate headquarters in New York and Los Angeles, and, like advertising, their corporate hierarchy and creative output was generated by almost exclusively white men producing content for audiences with a white, heterosexual, middle class demographic. Television historian Lynn Spigel chronicles the design through the opening of CBS’s first 1953 Los Angeles production facility Television City, which she claims “communicates the experience of television as a design concept.” [ (( Lynn Spigel, TV by Design: Modern Art and the Rise of Network Television (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 128, but see pages 110-143. ))] By using the elite design aesthetic of modernism as a public branding technique, television made an early argument that its mass mediated cultural productions were like an art form. CBS’s 1964 Midtown Manhattan corporate headquarters, a skyscraper located adjacent to Rockefeller Center, creates a far stronger correlation between Mad Men and corporate modernism, illustrating how by the mid-1960s the large, multitenant office building, primarily funded by a named corporation, became the definitively white, male emblem of creative professional work. Despite the multiple transitions in the production and distribution of new television content—the recent insurgence of especially black female televisual representation, a move that would seem to necessitate a reconsideration of corporate televisual modernism—the television industry continues to house itself in modernist corporate environments with similar managerial and creative identity-based inequalities. Mad Men’s corporate modernism thus doesn’t just tell the history of 1960s advertising; it provides a look into contemporary corporate creative culture.

Don standing in his slick modernist office staring out at a sea of skyscrapers

Don standing in his slick modernist office staring out at a sea of skyscrapers

As many have pointed out, and unlike much of what historian Merrill Schleier has called “skyscraper cinema,” Mad Men almost never shows the exterior of the office buildings in which its characters spend the majority of their time. [ (( See Merrill Schleier, Skyscraper Cinema: Architecture and Gender in American Film (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009). ))] Instead, the camera meditates mainly on Don alone and with colleagues in his office. This focus on white straight masculine interiority corresponds to the dynamics of gender and sexuality as embodied by the midcentury skyscraper. The authoritative lines of corporate modernism are matched by the solidification of the male patriarchal domination of workspace—their position in corner offices with curtain-walled windows—and the ancillary roles, and interior, window-less spaces that women were relegated to. Indeed, for the majority of Mad Men’s run, only one woman, Don’s protégé Peggy Olson, receives her own windowed office, the rest of the female secretarial pool confined to fully open then partitioned interiors to be easily observed by their male bosses.

I’d like to make an admission: like many of Mad Men’s commentators, I spent my first run viewing of the show considering it something of a feminist masterpiece. I even, as shown below, posted a paean to its female protagonist Peggy Olson on my Facebook page. The bitter irony of making semi-public my misinterpretation of a sudsy but perhaps too championed show now resounds, as I complete my second full viewing of it, as my attempt to rationalize my pleasured enjoyment of an aesthetically and ideologically conservative soap opera. It would seem that, in having sat through and partially taught architectural history survey courses for eight years and counting, I’d accustomed myself to the very corporate architectural modernism, and its violent symbolic assault on female and black persons, that I encourage my students to critique and disengage from. The most telling part of my Facebook post is, however, the sole comment, left by a former yoga teacher, that Peggy’s “becoming Don.” I’d like to propose that, in addition to slavishly recreating corporate America’s patriarchal heyday, Mad Men recreates the patriarchal politics of the 1960s iterations of its primary generic category, the soap opera. Published in 1970, the same year as Mad Men’s conclusion, the intersectional feminist anthology Sisterhood is Powerful contains an essay that critiques the architecture-advertising-television complex illustrated by Mad Men’s narrative spatial emplacements. In her essay “Media Images I: Madison Avenue Brainwashing—The Facts,” Alice Embree claims that television is the primary nationally disseminated media controlled by the ad agencies of Madison Avenue. Significantly, Embree cites the soap opera as the televisual programming genre that most clearly exhibits and bolsters “the image of male-dominated women,” and she especially singles out the depiction of the white, middle class, corporate professional man (that’s you, Don Draper) as the corporeal and spatial soap opera figure making this assertion. [ (( Alice Embree, “Media Images I: Madison Avenue Brainwashing—The Facts,” in Sisterhood is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement, edited by Robin Morgan (New York: Vintage, 1970), pages 175-191. ))]

My Facebook post about Peggy Olson

My Facebook post about Peggy Olson

Over the course of the show, as Peggy Olson ascends the corporate ladder, she is, as my yoga teacher’s comment suggests, increasingly masculinized as an embodiment of liberal individualism. Popular and academic commentators on the show have called it “TV’s most feminist show,” but, in reality, it’s a show about men dominating women and women acquiescing to its male characters’ demands in order to achieve personal and/or professional success. Perhaps Peggy’s navigation of corporate modernism is a second wave feminist tale of liberal individualism, but she’s largely unhappy, unliberated, and depressed over the show’s run. Indeed, liberal individualist ideology was promoted by early, white, middle class second wave feminists, and this movement’s contrast with the collective working culture of feminized office culture—and black feminism—renders it a patriarchal American spatial myth: a pursuit of an office of one’s own that was considered out of reach by and for most women. [ (( For a discussion of the relationship between the American ideologies of liberal individual (and its 1960s white, middle class, bourgeois feminist associations) and its contrast with collective black feminism, see bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (Boston: South End Press, 1984), pages 1-15. ))]

Peggy Olson in her office

Peggy Olson in her office

Indeed, all accounts of white and black authors who write about working in corporate America in the 1970 intersectional feminist anthology Sisterhood is Powerful state that, based upon their lived experiences, women never rose above the level of glorified secretary and never moved from open, interior, and public workspaces into private, windowed offices.[ (( For a comparative discussion of female workplaces in the Connecticut suburbs and Manhattan in the 1960s, see Judith Ann, “The Secretarial Proletariat,” in Sisterhood is Powerful, pages 86-101. For a discussion of a black female proletariat working in mass media, see Shelia Smith Hobson, “Women and Television,” in Sisterhood is Powerful, pages 70-76. ))] It would thus seem that Peggy’s corporate spatial ascent is an unlikely fictional conceit provided by white male apologists-cum-television creative to furnish a point of identification for contemporary female viewers and to lull male viewers into thinking the show was advancing a progressive (historical) agenda. Moreover, the aesthetics of Peggy’s office—warm wood paneling in stark contrast to Don’s clean whites—directly echo those of Seagram’s initial luxurious wood modernism, and her feminine domination of such a space corresponds to her narrative assumption of masculinist, unwavering, unsympathetic assertiveness. As importantly, Peggy’s refusal to collaborate with or advocate for her female co-workers demonstrates her ideological assumption of patriarchal corporate spatial divides. Audre Lorde’s 1979 black lesbian feminist manifesto “The Master’s Tools will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” should ring in the ears of Mad Men viewers. Not only does Peggy use patriarchal professional and social tools to enable her spatial ascent, but she also doesn’t embrace Lorde’s claim that “for women, the need and desire to nurture each other is not pathological but redemptive, and it is within that knowledge that our real power is rediscovered.”[ (( Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” in Gender, Space, and Architecture, edited by Iain Borden, Barbara Penner, and Jane Rendell (New York: Routledge, 2000), 54, but see pages 53-55 for the full text. ))]

Peggy Olson in “Ladies’ Room”

Peggy Olson in “Ladies’ Room”

Peggy Olson and Joan Holloway ride the elevator up to Sterling Cooper’s offices

Peggy Olson and Joan Holloway ride the elevator up to Sterling Cooper’s offices

In the series’ second episode, “Ladies’ Room,” Peggy is met with iciness by her new coworkers, initiating her corporate experience with inter-female hostility in Sterling Cooper’s only fully female space. But Peggy doesn’t have a desire to change this flawed social-political system. Instead, she engages in a largely competitive corporate jockeying, a political battle, with Sterling Cooper’s other ascendant white female employee, Joan Holloway. They’re most frequently shown riding the elevator up and down to the Sterling Cooper offices, and, in their tense final ride, Joan informs Peggy, after being sexually harassed by men at a competing firm, “I want to burn this place down.” Peggy doesn’t join Joan in her attempt to overthrow corporate sexual discrimination. Instead, she gets off the elevator and goes to her office, concluding the series by integrating herself, more than ever, into the male-dominated spaces of corporate America.

Further defying Lorde’s 1979 call to arms, Peggy several times displaces black female coworkers by making racist assumptions about black working class women who belong to the same spatially exposed secretarial pool she starts the series within. First, after discovering Don’s new secretary Dawn sleeping in his office and inviting Dawn to her apartment, Peggy thinks Dawn has stolen from her and Dawn, depicted in narrative shorthand as an abject, spatially unmoored black woman, leaves the supposed white feminist domestic sphere feeling the opposite of sisterhood and spatial togetherness. In effect, Peggy stereotypes Dawn as a poor, black thief, a domestic interloper, demonstrating how stereotypes are “a fantasy, a projection onto the Other that makes them less threatening.” [ (( bell hooks, “Representations of Whiteness in the Black Imagination,” in Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1992), 170. ))] Instead of truly opening her space to intersectionality, making the emotionally risky decision to trust a black woman and thus truly making her home a place of feminist togetherness, Peggy makes the comfortable, “less threatening” social and political decision to racially police her personal space. Second, Peggy falsely presumes that flowers sent to her black secretary Shirley were intended for her, as if the Sterling Cooper offices, in their resounding modernist whiteness, has no space for black women to be given any attention. (This incident serves as a partial excuse for Peggy to request Shirley be re-assigned, making it overt that black women’s place within the Sterling Cooper office is subject to white overseers’ whims.) My emphasis on ‘modernist whiteness’ is intentional: Madison Avenue is literally, spatially. Moreover, when the historical spatial evolution of this advertising world is turned into a narrative with equally historical soap opera conventions, Mad Men crystallizes into a show conceived of, executed by, and representative of male patriarchy’s domination of American corporate space.

“On the Next Mad Men

Discussion to be continued in Flow 22.04.

Image Credits:

1. The Mad Men season 4 promotional poster
2. Final shot of the Mad Men opening credits (author’s screen grab)
3. Architect Mies van der Rohe smoking a cigar
4. Sea of skyscrapers (author’s screen grab)
5. Facebook post (author’s screen grab)
6. Peggy Olson in her office (author’s screen grab)
7. Peggy Olson in “Ladies’ Room” (author’s screen grab)
8. Peggy Olson and Joan Holloway ride the elevator up to Sterling Cooper’s offices (author’s screen grab)
9. “On the Next Mad Men

Please feel free to comment.

Teen TV’s Post-Closet and Postracial Fictions
Wendy Peters / Nipissing University

Featured Image WP

Blaine and Kurt from Glee

On American television, homophobia and racism are increasingly characterized as “passé” and relegated to a bygone era. [ (( Becker, Ron. “Guy Love: A Queer Straight Masculinity for a Post-Closet Era?” Queer TV: Theories, Histories, Politics. Eds. Glynn Davis and Gary Needham. New York: Routledge, 2009. 127; Ono, Kent A. “Postracism: A Theory of the ‘Post’- as Political Strategy.” Journal of Communication Inquiry 34.3 (2010): 228.))] On teen TV, high schools are often imagined in postracial and post-closet terms. And representations of racism and homophobia do the work of staging the moral enlightenment of the present.

I am interested in how these “post-” pretenses intertwine with neoliberalism on teen TV and give rise to post-closet narratives that serve to confirm whites as idealized gay subjects while symbolically disciplining or annihilating racialized gay and bisexual teens. Related to Melanie Kohnen’s column on Ugly Betty, [ (( Kohnen, Melanie. “Tying Narrative Threads by Opening Closet Doors: Coming Out on Ugly Betty.” Flow 12.05 (July 2010). ))] post-closet and postracial narratives minimize homophobia and reassert racial hierarchy, while each is denied. In this column, my focus is on representations of post-closet high school students in the 2010-2011 season of teen TV.

The 2010-2011 season of scripted Canadian and American teen TV featured more non-straight teen characters in one year than each previous decade. Given the concurrent media focus on LGBT youth and homophobic bullying in schools, I selected series set in high schools. As Ron Becker explains, post-closet characters are introduced to viewers as already “out” and never struggle with their sexuality. They tend to be white, affluent, male, avid consumers, apolitical and likeable. Their sexuality is presented as innate, stable, permanent, desexualized and chaste, or more recently, monogamously committed. [ (( Becker, Ron. “Post-Closet Television.” Flow 7.03 (November 2007); Becker, “Guy Love,” 121-40. ))] These characteristics are in line with the values of neoliberalism, including self-reliance, affluence, consumption, privatization and the family as the site of social reproduction. [ (( Cossman, Brenda. “Sexing Citizenship, Privatizing Sex.” Citizenship Studies 6.4 (2002): 484.))] By showing certain privileged and privatized gay men—and to a lesser extent lesbians—television made room for gay characters who conform to what Lisa Duggan calls “the new homonormativity… a politics that does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions but upholds and sustains them, while promising the possibility of… a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption.” [ (( Duggan, Lisa. The Twilight of Equality? Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy. Boston: Beacon Press, 2003. 50. ))]

Image 1 Brothers and SistersImage 2 New NormalImage 3 The FostersImage 4 Modern Family

Left to right: Brothers and Sisters, The New Normal, The Fosters, and Modern Family

The examples I show illustrate how race, class, sex, sexuality and privatization figure in the depictions of Blaine on Glee, Griffin on The Secret Life of the American Teenager, Ian on 90210, Maya and Samara on Pretty Little Liars, and Zane on Degrassi. These post-closet teen characters are depicted as likeable, confident, out, proud, fashionable, affluent and popular with their high school peers. They are much like their “good” straight peers who desire long-term monogamous relationships. Of the six characters depicted as post-closet in 2010-2011, three read as white and middle-class while identifying as gay and male (Blaine on Glee; Griffin on The Secret Life of the American Teenager; Ian on 90210). Additionally, there is one white, affluent, lesbian (Samara on Pretty Little Liars). The remaining two post-closet characters read as mixed-race and middle-class, one gay-identified male (Zane on Degrassi) and a bisexual / queer female (Maya on Pretty Little Liars). [ (( I write that these characters “read as” white or mixed race because my claim is not that they “are” white, for example, but that they are presented and likely read as white. I offer these categorizations to reflect the shorthand that is often employed in “racial sightlines” (Guterl, Matthew Pratt. Seeing Race in Modern America. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2013). I also want to clarify that Kurt Hummel, a white, gay-identified teen character on Glee is depicted in 2010-2011 as out, but I apply Becker’s definition of “post-closet” to exclude all teen characters who are shown to struggle with coming out onscreen. ))] That both of the racialized characters are fair-skinned conforms to the ongoing televisual erasure of darker bodies, a representation Amy Hasinoff describes as where “marketable lighter-skinned mixed-race [characters] can be positioned to stand in for all racial differences.” [ (( Hasinoff, Amy Adele. “Fashioning Race for the Free Market on America’s Next Top Model.” Critical Studies in Media Communication 25.3 (2008): 330.))]

Image 5 Blaine on GleeImage 6 Secret Life of American TeenagerImage 7 90210Image 8 Pretty Little Liars

Left to right: Blaine on Glee, Griffin on The Secret Life of the American Teenager, Ian on 90210, and Samara on Pretty Little Liars

In the 2010-2011 season of teen TV, all four of the white post-closet teens are safe, secure, well-integrated into their schools and do not face homophobia. [ (( A notable exception is that 90210 utilizes the trope of the closeted bully. In that narrative, Ian is called a “faggot” and is physically attacked by a closeted character. Importantly, the series neoliberally individualizes homophobia at West Beverly Hills High School to the mind and actions of one closeted character. ))] Blaine on Glee, Samara on Pretty Little Liars and Ian on 90210 all attend schools that are explicitly wealthy and opposed to homophobia, while Griffin on Secret Life attends a middle-class public high school that is implicitly post-homophobia. The privatization of gay-positive schools offers a tacitly neoliberal acknowledgement of homophobia when Blaine is shown attending a lavish, all-boys private school with a zero-tolerance policy on homophobic bullying, while Samara’s private prep school has an LGBT Pride Club. Glee and Pretty Little Liars explicitly link privatization with safety for gay and lesbian students when Blaine and Samara are shown mentoring their counterparts who are struggling to come out in public schools. Such narratives present homophobia as a metric to evaluate schools and implicitly frame public schools as lacking. Well-adjusted and physically secure post-closet teens are articulated to whiteness, affluence and—in some instances—privatization.

Dalton Academy

Blaine’s private school is visually characterized by an all-male and racially diverse cast in formal uniforms surrounded by heavy drapery, wood paneling and oil paintings.

The narratives of the two racialized teens are distinct from the white post-closet characters and unique in relation to each other. Race is not mentioned in relation to post-closet characters in 2010-2011, and the avoidance of race is nearly acrobatic at times. In a Pretty Little Liars episode, tellingly titled “The New Normal,” a parent complains that Emily, who is racialized and “out,” is given preferential treatment on the swim team over his white and (presumed-to-be) heterosexual daughter. A teacher explains: “He came in making a big deal about how he thinks Emily’s getting special treatment because she’s gay.” [ (( S01 E17. To clarify, Emily is “out,” but does not meet the criteria for a post-closet character as she is shown to “come out” as part of her narrative (see footnote 6). ))] Race is entirely overlooked and in keeping with “post-” discourses there is a suggestion, though narratively discredited, that a privileged student is the victim of so-called “reverse discrimination.” It is within this kind of postracial context that the violence faced by Zane is characterized as exclusively homophobic in nature, while the violence faced by Maya is individualized and narratively divorced from racism and homophobia.

Image 10 DegrassiImage 11 Pretty Little Liars

Left to right: Zane from Degrassi and Maya from Pretty Little Liars [ ((Actor Bianca Lawson (right) has been playing a teen on teen TV for over 20 years, including Buffy, Dawson’s Creek, Secret Life, Pretty Little Liars and more. ))]

Degrassi’s Zane conforms closely to Becker’s description of post-closet gay characters. His narrative diverges from the white teens when he is bullied by other “jocks” in his Canadian public high school and in response he promotes and attends a community roundtable addressing homophobia in schools. [ (( S10 E19 ))] Zane is a rare post-closet character who is shown facing and resisting homophobia, particularly through a public, community-based, activist solution. He is an atypical post-closet character insofar as he is racialized, in a high school that is not exclusively anti- / post-homophobia, and in contact with a politicized queer community. When taken together with the white, post-closet characters, it is notable that Zane’s divergence from more common representations of whiteness and privatization leave him symbolically vulnerable to homophobic violence and harassment in his ostensibly postracial high school context.

Image 12 Zane

Zane speaks at the community roundtable about homophobia in schools.

Maya on Pretty Little Liars (PLL) is a lone and extreme outlier in relation to post-closet characters and homonormativity. She is racialized, female and known to have sexual relationships with male and female characters. Her transgressions are underscored as dangerous when she is stalked and murdered at the end of the first season. Her killer is later revealed to be a young black man with whom she was romantically involved when her parents sent her to rehab for smoking pot and skipping school. Maya’s vulnerability and death are not narratively linked to homophobia or racism, but rather individualized as consequences of her unfixed and active (racialized) sexuality, opposition to valued institutions such as family, school and the law, as well as the jealousy of a violent and homicidal black man. It is striking that the teen who falls furthest outside the valued characteristics of post-closet TV and homonormativity is symbolically punished with a horrific death.

Maya's DeathMaya's Killer

Maya at the time of her death; Lyndon, Maya’s killer, attempts to kill again, but is slain in self-defense by one of the PLL protagonists.

One might argue that the relative safety of white teens and the violence faced by racialized youth is a realistic aspect of these storylines or that teen TV draws attention to under-resourced public schools lacking supports for queer students. Yet, these narratives primarily elide the existence of racism, homophobia and normative privilege, despite their tacit acknowledgement. Together, these post-closet narratives favour white gay teens—especially those whose families can afford to privatize their schooling—while endangering lighter-skinned racialized queer youth. Further, darker-skinned racialized post-closet characters are precluded from representation entirely, while tropes of the violent black man round out this “postracial” hierarchy. The dangers of “post-” politics are dramatized implicitly in these series as post-closet teens often serve to highlight the lack of homophobia in fictional high schools, while postracial discourse enables the continued privileging of white gay subjects alongside the penalizing and vilification of racialized teens. Narratives denying the existence of such discourses are bound to repeat them.

Image Credits:

1. Blaine and Kurt in Glee
2. Brothers and Sisters
3. The New Normal
4. The Fosters
5. Modern Family
6. Blaine on Glee
7. Griffin on The Secret Life of the American Teenager
8. Ian on 90210
9. Samara on Pretty Little Liars
10. Blaine’s private school is visually characterized by an all-male and racially diverse cast in formal uniforms surrounded by heavy drapery, wood paneling and oil paintings.
11. Zane on Degrassi
12. Maya on Pretty Little Liars
13. Zane speaks at the community roundtable about homophobia in schools. (author’s screen grab)
14. Maya at the time of her death
15. Lyndon, Maya’s killer, attempts to kill again, but is slain in self-defense by one of the PLL protagonists.

Please feel free to comment.

Losing Cosby
Bambi Haggins / Arizona State University

Cosby faces allegations

Bill Cosby, the Fallen Comedy Icon

This began as an article on the fall of a Black comedy icon. After watching the Dateline interview with 27 of the 55 women who have accused Bill Cosby of being a sexual predator, on the same day that the 78-year-old comedian was forced to answer questions about an alleged 2008 attack at the Playboy Mansion, I had to question why I feel so personally angered and injured by this history of despicable actions.

As a Black Post-Boomer, Pre-Xer, eight-track tapes of Bill Cosby’s comedy provided my nap soundtracks. I grew up on The Electric Company and Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, and, later, on The Cosby Show. As a working class kid, I was weaned on the uplift-tinged stories of “you can’t be as good, you have to be better to get half as far.” In other words, although my folks were not in the same socio-economic zip code as the Huxtables, they were in the same ideological region.

As a middle-aged media scholar, I see 20th-century televisual iterations of Cosby as the poster boys of (Black) American exemplarism—whether as the integrationist Super Negro spy, Alexander Scott in I-Spy, or the patriarch of the Super African American Huxtable clan in The Cosby Show. The new millennial Cosby has positioned himself as the self-appointed cultural and moral arbiter for Black America and, most recently, has been called a serial predator.

In truth, losing Cosby—the desire for and belief in the illusive and impossible zeitgeist of his comic and socio-political discourse—started happening a long time ago. In Cosby’s infamous “Pound Cake” speech at the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education in 2004, his words seemed rooted in a deep personal disappointment about how younger generations and the Black underclass had let him down. Indeed, Cosby’s turn towards activism and his “call-out” dates across the country in the late 2000s centered on the need to produce a brand of Blackness informed by self determination-fueled, socially and politically conservative tenets, which required that the less than talented 90% pay heed when he calls them out for behaviors that keep them “aspirationally challenged.” As Ta-Nehisi Coates stated in his 2008 article in The Atlantic,

As Cosby sees it, the antidote to racism is not rallies, protests, or pleas, but strong families and communities. Instead of focusing on some abstract notion of equality, he argues, blacks need to cleanse their culture, embrace personal responsibility, and reclaim the traditions that fortified them in the past. [ (( Ta-Nahesi Coates, ‘This Is How We Lost to the White Man’ The audacity of Bill Cosby’s black conservatism. The Atlantic, May 2008 accessed 9/1/15))]

While Cosby was not alone in this ideological directive, decades of his not “acting right” and not being the exemplar that he purported himself to be, undermined what Michael Eric Dyson referred to as his “Afristocrat in Winter” [ (( This is the title of the first chapter in Michael Eric Dyson’s 2006 book, Is Bill Cosby Right?: Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?. Afristocracy speaks to what Dyson, and other cultural critics see as the classism and elitism in the Black Middle and Upper Middle Class.))] pronouncements as well as his legacy. It is both fitting—and profoundly disturbing—that the catalyst for his downfall came from another Black comic. When the video of Hannibal Buress’ 2014 Philadelphia show went viral, everything changed.

[Cosby] gets on TV, ‘Pull your pants up, black people … I can talk down to you because I was on TV in the 80s.’ Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches … When you leave here, Google ‘Bill Cosby rape.’ That shit has more results than ‘Hannibal Buress.’

Needless to say, Buress’ rant did not cause over thirty-five women to tell their stories about Cosby’s predatory ways in New York Magazine [ (( Ella Ceron and Lainna Fader, “35 Women and the empty chair.” New York Magazine, July 28, 2015 Accessed July 30, 2015.))] nor did it necessarily raise questions about why, when some of these women came forward a decade before, it was their motivations and not Cosby’s actions that were called into question. As the title of Barbara Bowman’s Washington Post article stated bluntly, “Bill Cosby raped me. Why did it take 30 years for people to believe my story? Only when a male comedian called Cosby a rapist did the accusation take hold.” [ (( Barbara Bowman, Bill Cosby raped me. Why did it take 30 years for people to believe my story? Only when a male comedian called Cosby a rapist did the accusation take hold.” The Washington Post Nov. 13, 2015 accessed 2/13/15))] Well… denial is a powerful thing—particularly when it threatens mythologies with which we have become comfortable. Who wanted to believe that “America’s Dad,” a Black comedy icon, was a sexual predator?

Cosby and Larry King

Cosby’s Previous Jokes Carry New Meanings

Yet, cracks in the idealized veneer of Cosby could be seen in years past. On a 1969 comedy album, Cosby has a long bit regaling the merits of the mythological aphrodisiac, Spanish Fly. While one might excuse this as a sign of more regressive times, Cosby reiterated this bit with some nostalgia on his 1991 appearance on Larry King Live: “Spanish Fly was the thing that all boys from age 11 on up to death…will still be searching for Spanish Fly.” The romanticizing exchange went on with Cosby stating, “…you put it in a drink,” and King replying, “That’s right. Drop it in her Coca-Cola – It don’t matter.” Then a chuckling Cosby responds “It doesn’t make any difference. And the girl would drink it,” and an equally delighted King finishes with “And she’s yours.” [ (( “Creepy Bill Cosby interview resurfaces, describes dropping ‘Spanish Fly’ in women’s drinks” The Griot, accessed 3/15/15))] In hindsight, the casualness and flippancy of Cosby’s words seems downright chilling. The image of the women on Dateline comes to mind: hands raised when asked if Cosby had drugged them. Cosby’s directives, offered from upon high, and his “public moralist” position empowered Judge Eduardo Robreno to release the 2004 deposition transcripts detailing how the comic utilized Quaaludes.

Cosby's accusers

Cosby’s Accusers Speak up on Dateline

The rapidity of Cosby’s downward spiral has shaken folks throughout the Black community, although, the impact may have some generational buffering. Black millennials, who saw The Cosby Show on Nick at Nite, have no real experience with him other than as a sitcom star or a pitchman. They may know about his accolades but they came of age with Black America’s scolding senior not the universalist funny man. When my student, Raymond Reid, a Black male born after The Cosby Show’s heyday, ranted unendingly about how much he hated Cosby’s pomposity, it made me wonder whether Cosby’s object lessons for Black success rang as hollow for Buress as they did for my student.

Cosby has lost his perch on the hierarchy of respectability and, along with the revoked honorary doctorates and severed ties with universities, the NBC series, and the Netflix special, he may be losing more—if the October 9 deposition reveals as much as the last did. Yet, what still remains both angering and painful for folks in the Black community is that Cosby was “our” icon and now he has become “our” shame. Brittney Cooper gave voice to what I feel:

The thing that I am most angry about besides Cosby’s violent, predatory acts toward his female victims is the collective sense of shame and disappointment that rests on the sagging shoulders of black folks in this moment. … Cosby now legitimates every awful thing that white people have been conditioned to think is true about Black men. If the innocuous, lovable, jello-pudding-pop man can’t be trusted, then no Black man can. [ (( Brittney Cooper, “Black America’s Bill Cosby Nightmare,” Salon July 9, 2015, accessed 8/10/15))]

In the end, this is about more than the fall of an icon—at least for us it is.

A controversial cover

A Shattered Image

Image Credits:
1. Bill Cosby, the Fallen Comedy Icon (author’s screen grab)
2. Cosby’s Previous Jokes Carry New Meanings (author’s screen grab)
3. Cosby’s Accusers Speak up on Dateline (author’s screen grab)
4. A Shattered Image

Please feel free to comment.