¡Viva el monstruo! – The Gill-man as a Symbol of Latinx Resistance
Casey Walker / University of Texas at Austin

Swamp Creatures Senate Protest
“Swamp Creatures” Protest at 2019 Senate Confirmation Hearings

At the March 2019 Senate confirmation hearings for David Bernhardt, President Trump’s pick to serve as interior secretary, protestors in the audience donned masks of the Gill-man from the 1954 film Creature from the Black Lagoon. Referring to themselves as “swamp creatures,” the protestors were there to draw attention to Bernhardt’s reputation as a member of the Washington D.C. oil and gas establishment and the very embodiment of the “swamp” that President Trump vowed to drain. Setting aside for a moment that a swamp is very different from a lagoon, this is not the first time the Gill-man has been read as a symbol of either sociopolitical anxiety or establishment resistance. Scholar Lois Banner notes that during the 1950s, these types of movie monsters were symbolic of fears of Communism, nuclear war, and/or the African American civil rights movement. [ ((Banner, Lois W. “The Creature from the Black Lagoon: Marilyn Monroe and Whiteness.” Cinema Journal (2008): 5.))] Filmed and released during the year-and-a-half-long road to the Supreme Court for Brown v. Board of Education, the case which legally ended racial segregation in schools, scholars often read the Gill-man in Creature from the Black Lagoon as a racialized Other.

But with respect to the Latin American roots of the story and also the South American setting of the film, can we also look at the Gill-man specifically as a symbol of the Latinx Other? The story of the film was originally conceived at a gathering at the home of Orson Welles in 1940, during the development of Citizen Kane. In attendance at the meeting were legendary Mexican actress Dolores del Río and soon-to-be legendary Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, along with William Alland, a member of Welles’ Mercury Theater. Alland later recalled that at this meeting, Figueroa “went on and on and on” about a “creature that lives up in the Amazon who is half-man and half-fish,” according to Latin American legend. More than a decade later, Alland was working as both a producer and story contributor at Universal-International Pictures and pitched the story idea to studio executives, calling it “The Sea Monster.” In a three-page memo he wrote to pitch the story, Alland instead gave credit for the story to “a South American movie director [sic].” [ ((Weaver, Tom & David Schecter & Steve Kronenberg. The Creature Chronicles: Exploring the Black Lagoon Trilogy. McFarland, 2014, 13.))] Whether this was just a faulty memory or an intentional concealment of Figueroa’s identity is unknown, but even to this day, published material usually gives credit to this unnamed director from South America or to Welles himself for hosting the party where the story was told.

Alland’s memo was turned into a treatment by Maurice Zimm and was expanded and re-written through multiple drafts of screenplays by writers Harry Essex and Arthur A. Ross. During these revisions, Alland and the writers expressed a desire to make the creature as human as possible and to create him as a symbol of “the natural.” Writer Ross later elaborated, “The more you attack what is natural in the world, the more likely it will do something to protect itself.” [ ((Ibid, 13-34.))] The authors’ creation of a human-like creature with human desires, in addition to grounding the creature’s agency in its natural impulse to protect itself, pivoted the concept of the film’s titular character from “a sea monster” to a creature of nature attempting to protect its habitat from scientists appropriating its ancestors’ remains. Later, the creature becomes infatuated with scientist Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams), although it treats her more like a desired possession than a romantic equal.

These attempts to model the creature after a human’s shape, mannerisms, and desires inspired a sympathetic reading of the Gill-man. Filmed several months after the release of Creature from the Black Lagoon, Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch (1955) most famously depicted these sympathies for the creature, when Marilyn Monroe’s character proclaims, “He wasn’t all bad. I think he just needed a little affection—a sense of being loved and needed and wanted.” Lois Banner explores the connection between the civil rights movement at the time (specifically the Brown v. Board of Education ruling) and Monroe’s defense of the Creature, concluding “it may have indicated a positive attitude toward racial difference.” [ ((Banner, 5-7.))] Reading the Gill-man as an indication of “a positive attitude toward racial difference” rather than just as a “sea monster” is partly how the perception of the creature changed over time from a symbol of sociopolitical fear to one of resistance against racial discrimination.

In addition to the Brown v. Board of Education decision, 1954 was an important and defining year in the history of civil rights struggles, especially with respect to Latinx citizens and immigrants. A few years earlier, The Migrant Labor Agreement of 1951 extended the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement, part of the Bracero Program, which brought over 350,000 Mexican workers to the U.S. each year. This continual influx of Mexican workers, along with the growing anxieties over how to document them, led to the Immigration and Naturalization Service implementing the despicably titled Operation Wetback in 1954, an initiative designed to repatriate Mexican workers. Almost four million people of Mexican descent were deported in a four-year time frame. In the same year as the implementation of Operation Wetback, the landmark Supreme Court case Hernandez v. The State of Texas resulted in a unanimous decision which held that Hispanic Americans are equally protected under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, setting the precedent for future legal action on behalf of their struggle for equality. [ ((“Latino Americans: Timeline of Important Dates.” PBS. Accessed May 24, 2019. https://www.pbs.org/latino-americans/en/timeline/.))]


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Mexican Movie Poster for Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

These huge events were ongoing upon the release of Creature from the Black Lagoon in 1954, a film that positioned the creature as a South American native whose tale was rooted in a Latin American legend as told by Mexican cinematographer, Gabriel Figeuroa. There is a Latinx foundation and essence to this film that cannot be ignored. The film also contains the representation of a primary Latinx character, that of Dr. Carl Maia, played by Spanish-born Antonio Moreno. Moreno was frequently cast as the “Latin Lover” character in numerous U.S. silent films, but his role in this film as a head scientist avoided conventional Latinx stereotypes of the time. The characters of Dr. Maia and that of the more stereotypical Captain Lucas (played by Portuguese descendent, Nestor Paiva) made up half of the expedition survivors at the end of the film and displayed agency, albeit limited, in the film. And while the designer of the iconic Creature costume, Milicent Patrick, was of Italian descent, she spent much of her childhood following her father around his construction projects in South America, becoming accustomed to the culture, traditions, and people of the continent where the film would be set. [ ((Fate, Vincent Di. “The Fantastic Mystery of Milicent Patrick.” Tor.com. March 25, 2015. Accessed May 24, 2019. https://www.tor.com/2011/10/27/the-fantastic-mystery-of-milicent-patrick/.))] This exposure was likely an influence on her concept and design of the Creature’s iconic look.

One person who likely never lost sight of Creature from the Black Lagoon‘s Latin American heritage was Guillermo Del Toro. The Mexican filmmaker worked on different iterations of scripts for a planned remake of the film, but Universal Studios turned him down. Undeterred, he created an original story based around a Gill-man who falls in love with a janitor (who also falls for him) at a high security government facility, which became the Oscar-winning film, The Shape of Water. The film focuses heavily on societal Others, such as a mute woman janitor, her black female co-worker, and a lonely, gay advertising artist, all of whom combine their efforts to rescue the Gill-man from the monstrous Colonel Richard Strickland before he can vivisect the creature for research. While the film has no obvious Latinx Other on-screen, Del Toro maintains the Latin American origin of the Gill-man in the story, positioning him as a potential Latinx Other, although not exclusively. By ultimately killing the character of Strickland in the climactic scene, the Gill-man serves as a symbolic and triumphant resistance to the misogyny, racism, and xenophobia that Strickland represents. In the current political climate, where Latinx families are separated at the U.S.-Mexican border and their children are placed in cages, we need these filmic Latinx symbols of resistance now more than ever. Frank McConnell writes that “each era chooses the monster it deserves and projects.” [ ((McConnell, Frank D. “Song of Innocence: The Creature from the Black Lagoon.” Journal of Popular Film 2, no. 1 (1973): 17.))] For the Gill-man and the Latinx resistance it embodies, maybe that time is now.


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A Touching Scene from The Shape of Water (2017)

Image Credits:
1. “Swamp Creatures” Protest at 2019 Senate Confirmation Hearings
2. Mexican Movie Poster for Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
3. A Touching Scene from The Shape of Water (2017)




OVER*FLOW: The Oscar’s Slow Lurch Toward Relevance and Diversity
Shawna Kidman / University of California San Diego

Oscars TV Ratings Woes

Some have argued that a big Best Picture winner brings big ratings, but it’s hardly an exact science. What’s clear is that the audience is in serious decline. Final numbers for the 2019 telecast came in at 29.6 million viewers.

The Academy of Motion Pictures was on a mission to save the Oscars this year. First up was the awards’ well-established popularity problem. Ratings for the telecast were at an all-time low in 2018, with only 26.5 million viewers, down dramatically from 43.7 million just a few years earlier. But numbers weren’t the only issue; the Academy is increasingly perceived as being deeply out of touch with the moviegoing public. Nominees tend to be small films (low in budget, low in box office take) that few Americans have seen, or sometimes, even head of. The Academy has been trying to solve this problem since at least 2008, when they expanded the Best Picture category from 5 to 10 films; Dark Knight Returns had failed to receive a nomination, and seemingly as a result, the ratings took a hit. This year, looking to further expand the range of films recognized, the Academy leadership floated the idea of a whole new category for best “popular” film. Like their other ill-conceived announcements, including pushing cinematography and editing awards into commercial breaks, the proposal was basically dead on arrival with exasperated Academy members. Also of concern for the last several years has been the Oscars’ considerable diversity problem. In response to #OscarsSoWhite campaigns in both 2015 and 2016 (when not a single non-white actor or actress was nominated) and steady criticism for its tendency to snub films made by or about people of color, the Academy invited nearly 1000 new members this year. The explicit goal was to open its doors to more diverse voters.

At first, these efforts seemed to be paying off. The list of nominees included some very popular films—
Bohemian Rapshody, A Star is Born, and Black Panther—as well as some very diverse films, including BlacKkKlansman, If Beale Street Could Talk, and again, Black Panther. And in the end, ratings went up, by 12%. But it remained the second-worst rated Oscars ever, and the Best Picture win went to Green Book, a film criticized for being a simplistic racial reconciliation tale. A throwback to prior disheartening winners (e.g. Crash or Driving Miss Daisy), the movie reminded everyone that the Oscars’ hoped-for-changes, if they come at all, are likely to materialize very slowly. There’s also the not-so-small fact that the Academy can only give Oscars to films that actually get made (and have enough support from their distributors to receive massive awards-season marketing campaigns).

Chadwick Boseman seems to speak for the whole room when he reacts to Green Book’s win for Best Picture. Meanwhile, and not caught on camera, Spike Lee tries to storm out the back of the theater.

For this reason, Black Panther stands out to me as a particularly intriguing Oscar contender. As an incredibly popular and genuinely diverse film, it was everything the Academy wanted and needed this year. But back in early 2016, when Disney, Marvel Studios, and producer Kevin Feige hired Ryan Coogler to direct the film, they likely weren’t thinking of racking up Oscars. They had plenty of other reasons to greenlight the project though, which had been in and out of development since the mid-1990s. Marvel was facing condemnation for, among other things, its failure to build a superhero film around anyone other than a white male; around the same time, DC responded to similar criticisms by finally prioritizing Wonder Woman, which also proved very successful both critically and financially.[ ((There are volumes of blog posts, comment sections, and online articles from 2014 and 2015 (and also before and after that window) that make these critiques as well as track Marvel and DC’s responses to them. See, for example, Jeet Heer, “Superhero Comics Have a Race Problem. Can Ta-Nehisi Coates Fix it?” The New Republic, Sept 22 2015 and Monika Bartyzel, “White Spider-Man and Marvel’s Diversity Deflection,” Forbes, Jun 23 2015. Marvel announced Chadwick Boseman’s attachment to the role in Oct 2014 and Ryan Coogler’s involvement in Jan 2016.))] As Marvel tells it then (or at least as their PR machine claims), this was a relatively easy decision on the part of producers. What’s more interesting and perhaps surprising, then, is the fact that the young and extremely talented Ryan Coogler agreed to sign onto the film. Ava DuVernay had already turned down the job (she decided instead to make A Wrinkle in Time, also for Disney). And Coogler, whose debut Fruitvale Station became a Sundance darling, and whose critically acclaimed Creed had just passed the $100 million mark, had an enviable position in Hollywood and the power to pick his next project.

He chose Black Panther, a franchise film with blockbuster potential. Although tellingly, he did not approach it like a typical comic book film. Coogler selected a mostly African and African-American cast and a diverse creative production team with experience from the indie world. It included two women of color, Ruth E. Carter and Hannah Beachler, who ultimately won Best Costume Design and Best Production Design in two of Oscar night’s most gratifying moments. As far as the film’s creative process, when Coogler describes its conception, it’s almost always in terms of his cultural identity, his background in Oakland, and his ancestral roots in Africa. Although we can assume he researched old comics before writing the film, in interviews, he always chooses instead to point to his more significant preparation, an exploratory trip to Sub-Saharan Africa, which helped him better understand the region’s traditions, landscapes, and struggles. In the end, he made a political film, with a progressive message about colonialism and about black life in the U.S. and abroad. Of course, as a comic book movie, Black Panther is also action-packed, visually dazzling, and brimming with witty one-liners.

The first woman of color to win for Best Production Design, Hannah Beachler thanks other members of the crew (including Ruth E. Carter and Rachel Morrison), director Ryan Coogler, and producers at Marvel, with Kevin Feige (but not Coogler) featured in a cutaway. She ends on a heartwarming note: “I did my best and my best is good enough.”

In the past, we may have expected to see a creative team like Coogler’s—filmmakers with a distinct vision and clear message—assemble around a movie in a more traditionally respectable genre (perhaps a literary adaptation or a war film), or in other words, conventional Oscar-bait. But if they had, nobody (at least outside of LA or NY) would have seen their vision or heard its message. The serious-minded mid-range films of the past, movies like Dances With Wolves (1990) and Silence of the Lambs (1991), that won both awards and audiences, have largely disappeared; they’ve become the exception instead of the rule. The studios gradually turned instead toward tentpoles. And then, beginning in the early 2000s, they doubled-down on the strategy, building up on private equity-funded slate financing, transmedia storytelling, and IP-based franchises. Comic book films moved to the center of a new multimedia mode of production in Hollywood and they remain there today.[ ((Jay Epstein, Thomas Schatz, and Harold Vogel all discuss facets of this structural transition. See Jay Epstein, The Hollywood Economist (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2012); Thomas Schatz, “The Studio System and Conglomerate Hollywood,” in The Contemporary Hollywood Film Industry, ed. Paul Mcdonald and Janet Wasko (Blackwell Publishing, 2008), 13-42; and Harold Vogel, Entertainment Industry Economics (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2015). I also discuss this transformation, and the rise of comic book films, in my forthcoming book, Comic Books Incorporated (Oakland: UC Press, 2019).))] Meanwhile, the awards shows have been left to lower-budget “indie” films, a space that’s been relatively easy for companies like Netflix and Amazon to break into (despite an ever-evasive Best Picture win). But if a filmmaker is interested in reaching big audiences and big buzz, Netflix cannot get them there. Comic books and franchises are the only way to access the masses, largely because they’re the only products Hollywood studios will put the full weight of their considerable machinery behind. That Black Panther was the very first comic book film nominated for Best Picture shows how out of touch the Academy is, not only with the American public, but with Hollywood itself, which, as an ecosystem, has come to depend on the lifeblood of superheroes.

In the future, we’re likely to see more comic book movies on Oscar night. But this won’t be because the Academy itself is transforming (even if it does, ever so slowly, lurch toward the future). It will be because more gifted and capable filmmakers like Ryan Coogler and Patty Jenkins will choose audiences over awards, bringing their significant talents to big IP-based franchises—movies too big for the Academy to ignore. It’s a little ironic actually. Despite its blockbuster status, Black Panther was Coogler’s first significant showing at the Oscars; both Fruitvale and Creed were overlooked, with only the latter receiving a nomination, for the performance of Sylvester Stallone. I wonder how much that 2016 snub impacted Coogler’s decision not to chase a traditional awards film as his next project. It’s yet another reminder that if the Academy fails to fully transform and recognize diverse talent, it will make itself and the kinds of films it has historically supported even more irrelevant.

Image Credits:
1. The Hollywood Reporter on Oscars’ Declining Ratings
2. Twitter Reacts to Chadwick Boseman Reacting
3. Hannah Beachler’s Lovely Acceptance Speech on ABC




From Inclusion Riders to Cultivating Care: What Lifetime Can Teach The Industry about Entertainment By and For Women, Pt. 2
Miranda J. Banks and Kristin J. Lieb / Emerson College

Screenshot of Lifetime's Surviving R. Kelly

Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly

This is the second part of a series. For part one, click here.

The televised awards ceremony creates its own form of melodrama: nominees’ faces filled with anxious hope, from the ingenue to the seasoned star, the surprised delight (or disappointed congratulations to the victor), and of course, the tearful often protracted narrative of the artist’s rise to this celebratory moment. At the Golden Globes this year, Regina King’s speech for Best Supporting Actress started as an alternately misty-eyed and revelatory listing of her collaborators for If Beale Street Could Talk. But then her speech took a turn as she self-reflexively noted that this was her chance to talk about issues larger than her personal experience—namely, the Time’s Up Movement. The “wrap it up” music began to play, but nevertheless, she persisted. And rather than raising the volume and cutting away from her, the song quieted and the camera remained fixed on her, allowing her to finish. The industry—at least those producing the show that night—is finally listening. They broke their time-honored policy to amplify a powerful voice that demanded to be heard.

Regina King’s Golden Globes Acceptance Speech

Changing production cultures is no easy task. And it takes not just a voice, but a vision. To want to do this work is only a small step in a complicated process. And few companies in the industry appreciate the challenges of executing systemic change better than the Lifetime Network. Lifetime’s bold executive move toward equity in its production—arguably its savviest executive decision since the creation of the Lifetime movie—brought about just such transformational change. In Spring of 2015, Lifetime launched Broad Focus, a sweeping employment strategy that aims to establish gender parity in above-the-line talent across the network’s original programming. What has made the program distinctive is that its goal has been not just to hire, but also to support and develop, the work of female writers, producers, and directors. Danielle Carrig, Senior Vice President for Communications and Public Affairs at Lifetime, conceived of Broad Focus as a way of doubling down on Lifetime’s mission of making television by and for women. [ (( Carrig, D. 2017. Interview by Miranda Banks. Audio. June 8, 2017. ))] As part of the initiative, Lifetime started scouting for talent, partnering with AFI’s Directing Workshop for Women and the Bentonville Film Festival, to usher at least one project a year from each through the network’s development pipeline. (Lifetime has also committed to airing one winning film from each of the festivals annually). At the time, A&E Networks’ (Lifetime’s parent company) president and CEO, Nancy Dubuc, celebrated Broad Focus as a challenge, not just for the network but to the industry. “In this day [and] age, it’s hard to believe as an industry we still struggle to fully recognize women’s talents in behind-the-camera roles, especially as directors… Broad Focus will inspire us to look deeper and in nontraditional places to discover women among those storytellers. I’m proud we are challenging ourselves and our friends in the industry to do more to support them.” [ (( Zumberge, M. 2015. “Lifetime’s Broad Focus Hopes to Find Jobs for Women in Hollywood.” Variety. May 6, 2015. ))]

Lifetime's Broad Focus

Lifetime’s Broad Focus

A month after the Broad Focus announcement, Lifetime premiered UnREAL, a series in which the network went meta on itself, chronicling the scripting of a reality dating series. The idea struck a chord with audiences, garnering record ratings for the network and abundant critical praise for the show. UnREAL both parodied and fueled the wish-fulfillment storytelling formula, historically so vital to Lifetime’s own success. Up until then, the network’s track record with original scripted programming had been decidedly uneven, with only six series lasting beyond two seasons. [ (( Newman, E.L. and E. Witsell. “Introduction.” The Lifetime Network: Essays On “Television for Women” In the 21st Century. Ed. E.L. Newman and E. Witsell. MacFarland. 1-17. Newman and Witsell include Any Day Now (1998 to 2002, four seasons), Strong Medicine (2000 and 2006, six seasons), The Division (2001 to 2004, four seasons), Army Wives (2007 to 2013, seven seasons), and Drop Dead Diva (2009 2014, six seasons). We also include here Devious Maids (2013-2016, four seasons) and UnREAL (2015-present, three seasons). ))]

Partnering with the Broad Focus’ initiative, UnREAL‘s creative team ensured not only the hiring, but the financial support of women working on the series—including those at the bottom. Stacy Rukeyser, co-executive producer and later executive producer of UnREAL, noted the impact of subsidizing typical pay rates for assistants on the series. Doing this diversified their pool of job candidates to include those who could not normally work at such low rates without going into debt. (Assistant jobs, which often put novice talent in the same room as people who might one day help them get staff jobs, often pay little. Typically only those people who have saved up funds, or who have family members willing to support them while they take these jobs, are the only ones able to capitalize on these opportunities.) As Rukeyser said, “Paying just a couple more hundred dollars a week opens doors.” [ (( Bennett, A. “Hollywood Harassment: Best Fight ‘Is to Have Inclusion’ — Produced By.” Deadline. June 10, 2018. ))]

In January 2019, Lifetime aired the six-part documentary series Surviving R. Kelly. The series extended the promise of the network brand, moving from revealing the drama behind the melodrama of reality television to making a haunting documentary about sexual predation that amplified Lifetime’s commitment to telling more inclusive stories by women and for women. Where other networks passed on Surviving R. Kelly, Lifetime believed that the series fit within their brand: this time not as a scripted biopic, but rather as a documentary told through the voices of the young black women who were survivors. But others needed convincing—including filmmaker and writer Dream Hampton, whom Lifetime approached to executive produce the series. “I didn’t want to get involved… And Lifetime, I had watched them fictionalize Aaliyah’s story [Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B]. I said, ‘I’m not interested in doing some re-creation of R. Kelly’… The fact is, I didn’t pitch this. And there wasn’t some buffet of people trying to do this story about black girls.” [ (( Lockett, D. “Why Didn’t Surviving R. Kelly Happen Before Lifetime Entered the Picture?” Vulture. January 18, 2019. https://www.vulture.com/2019/01/why-surviving-r-kelly-aired-on-lifetime.html. ))]

The trailer itself moves from centering the infamous star to bearing witness to survivors’ stories.

With this move, Lifetime stepped more securely into the realm of making television that matters, with integrity, by women and for women—without going off-brand. Lifetime achieved this by greenlighting the story, enlisting Hampton to serve as Executive Producer, and relying on more than 50 interviews to chronicle Kelly’s trail of abuse and bring the stories of his survivors to light compellingly, journalistically, and respectfully. The focus of the series is bearing witness to the women, not sensationalizing the fall of the infamous star, and thus the frames shift as well, making for novel, nuanced television about the entitlements of fame and the hazards and horrors of comparative invisibility. Where other networks said no, Lifetime said yes. By opting to tell an in-progress story about justice for wronged women–rather than offering a safer, post-facto dramatization—Lifetime has expanded its portfolio of meanings to include words like bold, daring, and activist.

But to capitalize on powerful brand meanings and intentions, companies must continue to invest in talent at all levels. In an interview, we asked Carrig about the importance of economic investment to the bolstering of these initiatives. She responded: “We have to start talking about money and the flow of money and making sure women are in that path of the flow of money. It’s okay to start to talk about money. We’ve thought it’s like this dirty thing that women need to be in that line. If their time is being used—even if it is, in part, a learning experience—I believe in compensating for time.” [ (( Carrig, D. 2017. Interview by Miranda Banks. Audio. June 8, 2017. ))]

The network has continued to imagine modes of expanding its reach globally and programmatically. As the network expanded its international reach—with 122% growth in global audience from 2012-2015—executives elected to extend Broad Focus to Lifetime’s worldwide brand through investment in micro-budget content development and in engagement with female talent and audiences through local festivals and markets. Amanda Hill, Chief Creative Officer, International for A+E Networks, said at the unveiling of this plan: “[i]t’s imperative that we use the power of our reach as a media brand to break down the barriers of entry for talented women storytellers.” [ (( Carrig, D. 2015. “A+E Networks’ Lifetime Takes Broad Focus Initiative Global,” Press Release. A+E Networks. October 5, 2015. http://www.aenetworks.com/article/ae-networks-lifetime-takes-broad-focus-initiative-global. ))] In terms of sports programming, while Lifetime was an early supporter of the WNBA, it recently deepened its investment in women’s sports, acquiring an equity stake in the U.S. National Women’s Soccer League, and broadcasting games starting in the 2017 season. [ (( Hagey, K. 2017. “A+E Networks Buys Stake in National Women’s Soccer League.” Wall Street Journal. February 2, 2017. ))] Then by building a nightly block around “women who pursue justice and display courage as a routine part of their work,” [ (( Littleton, C. 2018. “Gretchen Carlson to Host Lifetime’s ‘Justice for Women’ Monday Night Block.” Variety. June 4, 2018. ))] the network embraced cultural momentum related to the #MeToo and #TimesUp Movements, rebranding its Monday night programming block as “Justice for Women with Gretchen Carlson.” Carlson, a former Fox News anchor who successfully sued Fox News Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes for sexual harassment, uses her voice on Lifetime to continue her campaign—and that of the network’s—to be a strong voice for gender parity.

With Broad Focus, Lifetime made its commitment to equity, care, and corporate responsibility clear internally and externally, improving its chances of achieving employee buy-in and industry success. As Colin Mitchell notes in the Harvard Business Review: “Turning points are ideal opportunities for an internal branding campaign; managers can direct people’s energy in a positive direction by clearly and vividly articulating what makes the company special.”[ (( Mitchell, C. 2002. “Selling the Brand Inside.” Harvard Business Review. January, 2002. ))] Lifetime is now poised to become more relevant than ever as it delivers on its brand promise of making television by and for women with as much responsibility, care, and equity as it can. With this recently refocused mandate, Lifetime can ensure that a wide range of women get to tell a wide range of stories, broadening and deepening representation on its network, and validating the diversity among makers and audiences in the process.

Neither one person, nor one company, can undo long-held entitlements and the unchecked privilege of those who have dominated the media industries. To ensure that well-intentioned individual efforts are not made in vain, they must be coordinated and supported by institutional measures focused on impact and longevity. Many individuals working autonomously can make many other individuals feel cared for, but this approach results in duplicative effort, wasted time, and burnout. Lasting change is possible, but only if Lifetime and its network peers operationalize their values by integrating them into every conceivable level of their organizations and brands, investing in and supporting relevant initiatives, using more inclusive labor practices, and establishing how they will more thoughtfully and comprehensively measure success—and justice.

Image Credits:

1. Screenshot from Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly (author’s screen grab)
2. Lifetime’s Broad Focus




From Inclusion Riders to Cultivating Care: What Lifetime Can Teach The Industry about Entertainment By and For Women
Miranda J. Banks and Kristin J. Lieb / Emerson College

McDormand and Streep at the 2018 Academy Awards

PART I

A young woman’s life is cut short by violence and trauma. Her strong, attractive, middle-aged white mother, unable to set aside her grief, cannot forget this tragedy that their small midwestern town seems to have forgotten. The mother uses all of her savings and the help of a young black man to confront the local sheriff. The plot weaves in an untimely cancer diagnosis, a fire that destroys evidence, alcoholism, and an abusive ex-husband. Sound like a Lifetime movie? Perhaps. But it’s actually the stuff of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, and for her performance, the actress who played this grief-stricken mother, Frances McDormand, won the 2018 Academy Award for Best Actress.

In her acceptance speech, McDormand called not just for the voices of women in Hollywood to be heard, but for their projects to be financially optioned. “Look around ladies and gentlemen, because we all have stories to tell and projects we need financed. Don’t talk to us about it at the parties, invite us into your office in a couple days or you can come to ours, whichever suits you best, and we’ll tell you all about them.” She ended her speech with a rallying cry—two words that threw some executives into a tizzy and sent most people to Google: “inclusion rider.”

McDormand calls for the Inclusion Rider

A rider, a stipulation sometimes placed within an artist’s contract with a media company, puts a particular demand on the legal agreement that, if violated, allows the artist legal recourse to walk away from a deal. Top creative talent—whether actors, musicians, or directors—have invoked riders, in part, as a way to demand respect (or claim diva status) and feel less like employees and more like artists. Common or outrageous examples of such demands include private chefs, no brown M&Ms in the candy bowl, time off to golf during the workweek, or an endless supply of premium cigars.[ (( Desta, J. 2017. “8 Movie Stars with Unbelievable Contract Clauses.” Vanity Fair. August 10, 2017.))] In contrast, McDormand’s applied a rider to ensure justice—financial and professional justice for her cast and crew. McDormand called on the top-tier industry insiders assembled at the Academy Awards ceremony to establish contractually-mandated inclusivity and equity.

McDormand’s call for inclusion riders excited a conversation in the industry, the press, and popular culture about inclusivity and about the potential for powerful individuals to make transformative change within work cultures and communities. We believe wholeheartedly that every individual working within the media industries—actually, every individual—should do everything in their power to make workplaces more equitable. But seeing inclusion riders as an answer to Hollywood’s problems leads to further questions. All riders will not be written the same way—and the fine print is vital to their impact. So, how inclusive will these contracts be? Will they demand 50-50 gender hiring of cast and crew–or be progressive enough to think beyond gender binaries? Will they look for sustainable equity or just, as the Time Up X2 movement suggests, doubling numbers this year? Will they consider race or ethnicity? Will they consider what roles or leadership positions those who are traditionally underrepresented will take in these productions? What else is in the fine print?[ (( One scholar tweeted out an easily downloadable inclusion rider, but the document stipulated that signers give that particular scholar unique access to their production data for research purposes This addition of a third party to a contract could mislead signers or impede adoption.
))]

Kalpana Kotagal, a class action litigator and co-developer of the inclusion rider that MacDormand referenced, called a rider “an important piece of getting justice” and “a crucial tool for corporate accountability.”[ ((Dishman, L. 2018. “This Is One Of The Women Behind Hollywood’s Inclusion Rider.” Fast Company. March 22, 2018.))] A rider, as Kotagal says, is a compelling and powerful instrument, but in isolation, it is not a solution. Hollywood’s gender problems cannot be solved solely by individuals who use their star power to effect change on a project-by-project basis.[ ((Dvorak, P. 2018. “She wrote Hollywood’s ‘inclusion rider.’ But she fights for women at Walmart, chicken plants and hospitals, too.” Washington Post Blogs, March 8, 2018.))] Helen Wood and Heather Savigny recently noted in a shared keynote address at the University of Greenwich, there are deeply troubling neoliberal assumptions that underpin the idea that individuals can make a real-world impact and meaningfully transform systemic institutional sexism, racism, or classism.[ ((Wood, H. and H. Savigny. 2018. “Troubling Trailblazing: A Politics of Care.” Trailblazing Women On and Off Screen Conference. University of Greenwich, UK. June 19, 2018.))] One individual cannot unmoor a neoliberal meritocracy that systematically privileges white, able-bodied, cisgendered, straight, upper-middle class, college-educated men and disadvantages everyone else. Using feminist moral philosophy, Wood and Savigny instead called for a politics of care that would harness teams, groups, and organizations to work collectively to bring real and lasting change to companies, institutions, and systems.

With this politics of care in mind, individuals and companies must think beyond hiring practices noted in riders to consider how riders still might exclude those who do not have the access to apply for positions on production crews. Could a rider ever go so far as to demand reconsideration of how creative labor is organized and structured so that the culture of work is more equitable and inclusive? Wood and Savigny rephrase economist Milton Friedman’s famous quotation that “before there can be equity there must be freedom” to assert that “before there can be freedom, there must be care.” Care has been systematically undervalued—and without care for the well-being of others, Wood and Savigny state, true equity cannot be achieved. Using this logic, an inclusion rider forces a conversation and some action, but it must work in conjunction with a politics of care—or, at the very least within the current neoliberal economies of the media industries, to build or facilitate a semblance of corporate responsibility. Unless a vision for change is both action-oriented and has financial support—backed not only by powerful individuals within the organization but also by institutional policy—its chance for lasting impact is profoundly compromised.

Within the context of the highly conglomerated, capitalist system of television production that dominates the American market, what actions on screen and behind the scenes (from the corporate office to the set) highlight equity, justice, and care? In thinking about a company best positioned to implement these ideals, we arrived at Lifetime, the television network that has the for last 30 years branded itself as the dedicated network for women. In this two part series, we map how the network has found its way to an increasingly inclusive and compelling model of media made by and for diverse women. This first article follows Lifetime’s early history up to 2015. The second article, coming out next month, will explore how Lifetime’s Broad Focus initiative has transformed the network and how recent series, from UnREAL to Surviving R. Kelly, represent examples of how the network is reimagining what women—and others—who are increasingly interested in watching nuanced, representative, and engaging stories about women—want and/or need to see in 2019 and beyond.

The recent #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have placed gender equity and justice at the center of many cultural, political, economic, academic, and pop cultural discussions about gender in the United States. These conversations have expanded cultural understandings of sexual harassment and sexual violence in the workplace, and served to let women of all ages, races, ethnicities, classes, sexualities, professions, and political affiliations know that they are far from alone in navigating these harrowing experiences. Lifetime is advantageously positioned to advocate for women in all the ways a powerful, women-centric television network should, by considering its practices around employment—on screen and behind the scenes—in its offices, and in its boardrooms.

At this time in Lifetime’s trajectory, its brand is well-known, but not particularly well-respected; in order to have the market influence it desires, Lifetime must invest in making the brand as well regarded as it is recognizable. By embracing the cultural moment and investing more deeply in developing systems of care, creative autonomy, and equity that have already been applied at various moments in its history, Lifetime could have a stable platform from which to enact meaningful change, reflect more nuanced and inclusive explorations of “women’s stories,” and recast its brand as one to be enjoyed by audiences and emulated by peers.

The Lifetime Television Network, which grew to prominence as “the network for women,”[ ((Meehan, E.R. and J. Byars. 2000. “Telefeminism: How Lifetime Got Its Groove, 1984–1997.” Television and New Media 1:1: 33–51.))] sold itself to audiences as a safe space for women to see and hear their own stories. Lifetime’s broadly constructed target market—women of all ages, races, classes and geographies—created a difficult executional conundrum: how to appeal to all women. Network executives resolved the dilemma by focusing on 18 to 49 year-old-women, a well-known and profitable segment that was easy to sell to advertisers.

As the Lifetime Network bolstered its brand identity and developed signature offerings, it seized upon the winning formula of the Lifetime Movie. These movies were regularly criticized—often for being overwrought, unbelievable melodramas. But audiences tuned in. On the level of plot, Lifetime’s movies were delivering pablum, but between the lines, they were offering something Lifetime’s target market couldn’t resist: justice for women. Justice they weren’t getting at home, at school, at work, or from the legal system. Any wild tale that culminated in some semblance of justice was vindicating, validating, and thrilling. And while its heroines were often brutally victimized, its movies gave viewers access to a world in which justice could, and would, prevail. The formula worked. As Heather Hundley observed: “Ten years after it began, Lifetime was in 59 million households and was the eighth­ most-watched basic cable network in prime time, but most importantly, it was first in one of its key demographics: 18- to 49-year-old women.”[ ((Hundley, H. “The Evolution of Gendercasting: The Lifetime Television Network—‘Television for Women.’” Journal of Popular Film and Television. 29.4: 174–181.))]

Typical Lifetime Movie Fare: My Stepson, My Lover (A.K.A. Love Murder and Deceit), circa 1997.

Lifetime, like most television networks, has mainly focused on external branding efforts—to cable carriers, advertisers, and audiences. But during its history, a few powerful and well-intentioned individuals have made compelling efforts to change the brand from within. In 2007, Andrea Wong’s first act as the network’s new president was to meet and listen to all 500 of her employees as they talked about perceived opportunities and challenges at Lifetime.[ ((Chang, C., W Guttentag, and R. Kramer. 2008. “Lifetime Networks: Andrea Wong” Stanford Graduate School of Business, EM5.))] In engaging these extended conversations with employees across the network, Wong learned that most felt they did not have the authority to make decisions. In response, she encouraged them to act, arguing that, from her perspective, making mistakes was preferable to inaction. As Wong worked to change the programming of “the women in peril network,” she noticed the women behind the scenes were also in peril and sought to give them agency.[ ((Ibid.))] Wong captured something vital about how women in the media industries were experiencing the workplace and took compassionate action to build care into daily corporate life. Sadly, her efforts were short-lived for a number of reasons, including that she was just one individual trying to fix an ingrained, elaborate process problem. But her management approach to corporate climate was a thoughtful and compelling way of making her employees feel seen, heard, and valued. Wong’s approach may have also encouraged Lifetime employees to, in marketing terms, “live the brand” and see the network more completely as both for and about women.

Wong, who had earned an MBA at Stanford prior to joining Lifetime,[ ((Ibid.))] appreciated the depth and the value of internal (or employee) branding—whereby companies regularly articulate their brand mission and values to employees to create better alignment between corporate mission and employee action.[ ((A recent example of a company trying to realign with its mission and action would be Starbucks’ decision to close its stores on May 29 2018, for emergency training about racial bias .))] One company that has done this particularly well is Southwest Airlines. A Harvard Business Review article,[ ((Mitchell, Colin. “Selling the Brand Inside” Harvard Business Review January 2002.))] and a business case study of the company,[ ((Miles, S.J. and W.G. Mangold. 2005. “Positioning Southwest Airlines through employee branding” Business Horizons. 48: 535—545.))] explore Southwest’s commitment to engineering the brand from the inside out, sending clear and consistent messages to both internal and external audiences about the brand’s mission and values. The article notes that Southwest goes so far as to screen job candidates not only for their professional skills, but also “on a scale of one to five on seven traits corresponding to the brand’s core values.”[ ((Mitchell, Colin. “Selling the Brand Inside” Harvard Business Review January 2002.))] By interviewing with its mission in mind, Southwest is able to recruit and hire employees whose personal values and personalities align with Southwest’s systematic and progressive way of doing business. Lifetime could consider hiring this carefully and deliberately to achieve its own organizational goals.

As Lifetime has struggled to be more inclusive on screen and behind the scenes, it has succeeded in some ways and faltered in others. In 2012, Lifetime began phasing out “Television For Women” to make way for its new slogan, “Your Life. Your Time.” This move was designed to make the network more inviting to those not yet interested in or committed to the brand. Part of this meant expanding its focus beyond white women.[ ((Amanda Lotz’s (2004) study of the early Lifetime original series, I’ll Fly Away, argues that in part because of creative differences between writers and network executives, the representation of women of color on the series, only went skin-deep. The authenticity the series sought faltered in its execution.))] As Newman notes “what often went unsaid in previous discussions of their brand was that Lifetime’s generic woman was actually a white woman.”[ ((Newman, E.L. 2016. “Conclusion–Lifetime at Thirty: Leading the Way for Women and Television.” The Lifetime Network: Essays On “Television for Women” In the 21st Century. Ed. E.L. Newman and E. Witsell. MacFarland. 171-192.))] At some level, the network itself realized the myopic whiteness of its brand and started actively recruiting women of color as creative talent to help the network cultivate inclusion and creative autonomy throughout its ranks in recent years.

In 2012, the network remade the film Steel Magnolias with an all-black cast, drawing in 6.5 million viewers and strong reviews,[ ((Andreeva, N. 2012. “Steel Magnolias Remake Posts Ratings Records For Lifetime, Draws 6.5 Million.” Deadline. October 8. 2012.))] but this was a continuation of a superficial approach to representation. In 2013, Devious Maids, an original series created by Marc Cherry, resonated with many viewers by providing representation of Latina characters that pushed the envelope, just not too far. Jillian Baez argues the program captures “multiple segments of the female audience through postfeminist and postracial content that is intentionally polysemic.”[ ((Báez, J. 2015. “Television for all women?: Watching Lifetime’s Devious Maids.” Cupcakes, Pinterest, Ladyporn: Feminized popular culture in the early 21st century. Ed. E. Levine. 51-70.))] The series predictably positions these Latina heroines as hyper-sexualized members of the service economy but also presents them as more ethical than their rich and often white employers. This is a form of bounded transgression, which upholds televisual conventions around gender, race, class, and sexuality while subverting these norms and expectations just enough to court more progressive audiences searching for something newer and truer.

An example of bounded transgression, Devious Maids (ABC Studios/Lifetime)

Savvy viewers of color—as well as some scholars–saw Lifetime’s patterned representational problems clearly. Crosby and Bartlow highlight the contradictions in the original series Girlfriend Intervention, showing how it problematized white women’s behavior but expected Black women to do the labor of restoring “true” womanhood.

Extensively, the show advances white supremacy by helping white women; however, teaching white women to “embrace and celebrate their lives, speak their mind, lighten up and love themselves” (GI casting call) does not support the subservient role patriarchy demands of women of any color, especially if it is black women teaching even superficial empowerment.[ ((Crosby, S.L. and S. Bartlow. 2016. “‘What did we teach you?’ Racialized sisterhood in Girlfriend Intervention.The Lifetime Network: Essays On “Television for Women” In the 21st Century. Ed. E.L. Newman and E. Witsell. MacFarland. 21-37.))]

Audiences used their own methods of speaking back, taking to social media to exact representational justice through biting humor and memes. Brandy Monk-Payton, writing about the 2014 hashtags #LifetimeBeLike and #LifetimeBiopics that poked fun at the network, articulates how “social networking becomes a crucial platform for generating humor as a form of protest against systemic anti-Blackness in the United States.”[ ((Monk-Payton, B. 2017. “#LaughingWhileBlack: Gender and the Comedy of Social Media Blackness.” Feminist Media Histories. 3. 2: 15-35.))]

Taking heed to criticisms of their continued missteps and failures in its racist and stereotypical depictions of women of color, the network chose a high-profile marketing campaign around their decision to greenlight a biopic about the talented and beloved singer Whitney Houston, from the esteemed actor and first-time director Angela Bassett. The Lifetime movie, Whitney (2015), garnered the network’s highest ratings in more than a year,[ ((Kissell, R. 2015. “‘Whitney Biopic, Specials Score Big for Lifetime on Saturday.” Variety. January 19, 2015.))] but infuriated those overseeing Houston’s estate, who fired back that Bassett’s choice to make the film was short-sighted and opportunistic.[ ((Houston’s family was deeply angered by this unauthorized biopic. In a press release, Pat Houston, President of the Whitney Houston Estate, directed some of her anger directly at Bassett: “This creative pursuit at the expense of the integrity of such an iconic woman, who is voiceless today, reeks of condemnation and deceit. It reeks of enslavement to an industry that will likely do the same to you one day.” Whether Houston’s Estate was more angry at her representation, or that the movie eclipsed the Estate-authorized biopics in the ratings, is somewhat unclear. See Hyman, V. 2015. “Whitney Houston’s family on Lifetime biopic: ‘Brace yourself for the worst.’ NJ.com. January 18, 2015.
))] What resonates from Steel Magnolias, Devious Maids, and Whitney as examples of the network’s more recent approach to inclusivity—from the stories of women of color inserted into originally white narratives, to stories created by white men that push the representational envelope ever so slightly, to stories directed by women of color about women of color—is the importance of making space for women of color, queer women, gender non-conforming women, and women with disabilities to craft their own narratives and to visualize their own representation.

In Part II, we address Lifetime’s Broad Focus Initiative which heralded employment policy changes that led to some of its most compelling content yet, including UnREAL, which flips the script on the fantasy of on-screen romance, to Surviving R Kelly, a six-part documentary series that takes an intersectional feminist approach to one of the worst-kept secrets of the #MeToo era: Kelly’s serial sexual predation of underage girls.

Image Credits:
1. Frances McDormand and Meryl Streep at the 2018 Oscars
2. McDormand calls for the Inclusion Rider
3. Typical Lifetime Movie Fare: My Stepson, My Lover (A.K.A. Love Murder and Deceit), circa 1997.
4. An example of bounded transgression, Devious Maids (ABC Studios/Lifetime)




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)

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

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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.

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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. http://www.vox.com/2016/6/28/12046126/brexit-donald-trump-facts-politics))] [ ((Drezner, Daniel W. June 16, 2016. “Why the post-truth political era might be around for a while.” Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/06/16/why-the-post-truth-political-era-might-be-around-for-a-while/?utm_term=.9d9bce8b42bc))] [ ((Egan, Timothy. November 4, 2016. “The post-truth presidency.” New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/04/opinion/campaign-stops/the-post-truth-presidency.html))] [ ((Holland, Justin. November 30, 2015. “Welcome to Donald Trump’s post-fact America.” Rolling Stone. http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/features/welcome-to-donald-trumps-post-fact-america-w452917))] [ ((Krugman, Paul. December 22, 2011. “The post-truth campaign.” New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/23/opinion/krugman-the-post-truth-campaign.html))] [ ((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. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-sirota/welcome-to-the-postfactua_b_42527.html))] The willful spread of “rumor bombs” [ ((Harsin, Jayson. 2010. “That’s democratainment: Obama, rumor bombs and primary definers.” Flow, 13(1). http://flowtv.org/2010/10/thats-democratainment/))] [ ((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. https://www.project-syndicate.org/onpoint/the-emergence-of-a-post-fact-world-by-francis-fukuyama-2017-01))], the dangerous masking of propaganda as “fake news” and “alternative facts” [ ((Soll, Jacob. December 18, 2016. “The long and brutal history of fake news.” Politico.com. http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/12/fake-news-history-long-violent-214535))] [ ((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). https://www.splcenter.org/hate-map))], Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King’s crowd-sourced USA Election Monitor [ ((King, Shaun. 2016. USA Election Monitor (Interactive Map). Ushahidi.com. https://usaelectionmonitor.ushahidi.io/views/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.” http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/11/21/anti-muslim-assaults-reach-911-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. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/immigration/reports/2016/09/21/144363/the-economic-impacts-of-removing-unauthorized-immigrant-workers/))], 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). http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/USA-ELECTION-RACE/010020H7174/USA-ELECTION-RACE.jpg))], 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.

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“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, http://www.nytimes.com/1991/07/19/us/minneapolis-youth-2d-victim-of-violence-at-film-showing.html. ” ))] 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)

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

description of image

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.

blame
i-love-this-country

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. http://www.russellis.net/writings/ 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. http://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/feb/03/oscars-diversity-2016-favorite-movies-racism-prejudice-aesthetics-taste?CMP=fb_us 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

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