White Complexity, White Complicity, and New Stereotype in Booksmart
Jackson Wright / University of Texas at Austin


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Molly and Amy, played by Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Devers, were praised in their atypical portrayals of young women in high school comedies.

Booksmart (Wilde, 2019) was the little indie film that could, that didn’t. Overwhelmed in a summer of record-breaking blockbusters, this high school comedy flailed at the box office. In lieu of financial success, the film received praise for its ability to uplift young white women, both in the film and in audience reception. Director Wilde stated that one of her goals with the film was to represent young women while “no longer [being] put in a box of superficial obsession with boys, or assimilation to pop culture.”[ (( D’Alessandro, Anthony. “With Directorial Debut ‘Booksmart’, Olivia Wilde Addresses Underestimated Demographic Of Young Women.” Deadline, 26 December 2019. https://deadline.com/2019/12/olivia-wilde-booksmart-united-artists-releasing-interview-news-1202811076/. ))] With this prioritization of young female voices and female friendships, one thing that becomes clear is that there is also an implicit prioritization of whiteness. Where Molly and Amy—the film’s protagonists—gain landmark representation, the film still relies on ethnic stereotypes and tropes to sideline and objectify its nonwhite supporting characters. This limiting of nonwhite characters is ultimately in service of an ideology that is complicit with white superiority where simplistic nonwhite characters contrast the intricate and multivalent nature of white persons that are portrayed in Booksmart.

Booksmart was often lauded for its representation of its young female characters in spite of its poor box-office performance. W Magazine called the film “refreshing and funny, and with a nuanced friendship between two young women at the forefront.”[ (( Marine, Brooke. “Why Booksmart, an A+ Teen Movie, Failed at the Box Office.” W Magazine, 28 May 2019. https://www.wmagazine.com/story/why-booksmart-failed-box-office-annapurna/. ))] Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers noted that “Wilde’s film is less obsessed with sex than with female friendship in all its complexities and contradictions.”[ (( Travers, Peter. “‘Booksmart’ Review: The Revenge-of-the-Femi-Nerds Comedy We Deserve.” Rolling Stone, 21 May 2019. https://www.rollingstone.com/movies/movie-reviews/booksmart-movie-review-837799/. ))] Using some of the same language, The Globe and Mail identifies the protagonists’ complexity as the film’s greatest strength: “they contain multitudes, as the film privileges their hearts and minds, delving deep into their contradictions and complexities in a way the makers of Porky’s never dared with their characters.”[ (( Levack, Chandler. “Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart is the four-star feminist comedy teenage girls should plan their lives around.” The Globe and Mail, 23 May 2019. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/film/reviews/article-olivia-wildes-booksmart-is-the-four-star-feminist-comedy-teenage/. ))] These reviews focus almost exclusively on the gender of the characters while never revealing the hierarchy of complexity that is present in Booksmart: only the white characters can be at the forefront or can have the privilege of becoming complex. Even the supporting characters that are namechecked for being allowed non-stereotypical, or at least surprising, portrayals are white—Jared, Hope, Triple-A, George, with some mentions of Black gay drama student Alan. These reviews typify the unsaid yet overwhelming sense that only white characters truly matter in Booksmart, unless they are stereotyped.


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Theo, played by Eduardo Franco, toes the line between trope, anti-stereotype, and just plain clueless.

Theo, a 20-year-old Mexican-American high school student, provides an extremely potent example of Booksmart’s use of racial tropes. His status as recurring comedic relief can make him a 2019 equivalent to the “Latino male buffoon.” Originally theorized by Charles Ramírez-Berg, the Latino male buffoon is marked by “the very characteristics that separate him from Hollywood’s vision of the WASP American mainstream.” (71-72).[ (( Ramírez-Berg, Charles. Latino Images in Film. Austin, TX, University of Texas Press, 2002. ))] In this case, these characteristics are primarily Theo’s racialized attire, hair, and language. Much like Cheech and Chong, default images for the Latino-stoner trope, Theo is laidback and has a very clear nonwhite use of grammar and slang. The film attempts to acknowledge this stereotype. Theo declares early in the film that he is not going to college, with the caveat that he is actually going to work for Google straight out of high school. Despite this lip service to his accomplishments and academic/career success, Theo is still relegated to his stereotype status, complete with stoner-esque humor and an aversion to higher education. This additional layer to Theo’s stereotype—the intelligent yet still simple-minded minority—is not new in high school comedies (e.g., Pedro in Hess’s 2004 Napoleon Dynamite). Theo is also the only character in the film to explicitly mention his race, pondering whether Miss Fine—his romantic interest in the film—has ever “made love with a Mexican.” The tying of Latino sexuality and race has a long history, a stereotype that is defined again by Ramírez-Berg as the Latin Lover. While Theo’s overall character is a male buffoon, he purposefully digs into a larger history of “Latino” male stars that includes invocations of exoticism, racialized eroticism, and elements of foreign exploration and otherness. Theo becomes a mess of various types of stereotypes because Booksmart wants to convey him as a stereotype, unravel that stereotype, yet continually racialize and marginalize him so that he cannot be taken seriously as a true character, just a recurring gag.


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Alan, played by Austin Crute, was a highlight in reviews.

While Theo is perhaps the most overtly racialized and stereotyped in the film, another character stands out as being particularly troped—Alan, the gay black drama student. He falls into the broad category of black and gay men who are typified by loud and exaggerated behavior, often needing to be controlled or policed. Although Alan—and his partner George—exhibit fine tastes and put on ornate and complex dinner parties, Alan himself is still privy to stereotype in a way George, who is white, is not. The intersecting tropes of a loud, fussy, and uncontrollable black man—take Chris Tucker in The Fifth Element (Besson, 1997) or Kevin Hart in the new Jumanji (Kasdan, 2017 and 2019) films—and a dramatic gay man—any number of comedies with gay supporting characters—forces Alan into a box of stereotypes he cannot escape. This inability to escape is all the more apparent because his partner George is the de facto decision-maker of their relationship, is allowed more lines in the film, and is allowed to be a frequent presence in the film, showing up at the film’s climactic party without Alan. Where George is allowed to more fully interact with main characters Molly and Amy, Alan is mostly limited to only interacting with George. Actor Austin Crute, portraying Alan, originally auditioned for the role of Jared, who ended up becoming a nerdy rich kid and potential love interest for Molly.[ (( Harris, Hunter. “Skaters, Parties, a High-School Wolf Pack: Meet Booksmart’s Breakout Stars.” Vulture, 24 May 2019. https://www.vulture.com/2019/05/meet-the-breakout-stars-of-booksmart.html. ))] However, Crute was given the much smaller role of Alan, eliminating the possibility of creating a new type of Black character for high school comedies and adding Alan to the long-list of loudmouthed, uncontrollable gay Black characters.


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Nick, played by Mason Gooding, is one of many nonwhite romantic leads in recent high school films.

Nick, played by Mason Gooding (son of Cuba Gooding, Jr.), typifies yet another recently popular high school trope: nonwhite romantic interests for white leads. Booksmart joins recent high school comedies—notably The Edge of Seventeen (Fremon Craig, 2016) and Love, Simon (Berlanti, 2017)—in creating this white/nonwhite dynamic, indicating that the lead white protagonist has no issues with race and forcing their romantic complications to come from personality issues alone. While yet another noble pursuit, there remains the sense that fully nonwhite relationships are either unrealistic, too unexpected, or not even an option for mainstream high school comedies. Nick himself is unable to express any virtues or values as a character beyond being attractive and popular. This trope is, of course, a play on the vapid high school jock, yet with this film’s stated purpose being unraveling those stereotypes, it comes across as unfair to not let Nick stand on his own, especially for a character so central to our main character’s motivations. Nick’s introduction in the film accompanies Triple-A’s introduction; both of these characters are known for being promiscuous and popular. Yet, only Triple-A is allowed further development while Nick is not a presence in the film after he is seen making out with another girl. In fact, Triple-A consoles Molly (i.e., one white woman interacting with another white woman) after she feels betrayed, or at least led-on, by Nick. 

Ultimately, the discourse surrounding Booksmart should be as complex as its white characters. The film should dutifully be acknowledged for its progressive politics and its positionality as part of a new wave of films that treat young women as more than just sexual objects. And not all victories must be victories for all—meaning not all films must include dynamic representations for all parties involved. However, what this analysis argues is not that all characters deserved equal representation, but rather that Booksmart refuses to acknowledge the privileging of white characters and so cannot be heralded as a unanimous success. A lack of both complex nonwhite characters and women of color who are the same age as the protagonists point to the fact that Booksmart was a white victory, and that with only white victories, there follows white superiority. 



Image Credits:

  1. Molly and Amy, played by Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Devers, were praised in their atypical portrayals of young women in high school comedies.
  2. Theo, played by Eduardo Franco, toes the line between trope, anti-stereotype, and just plain clueless.
  3. Alan, played by Austin Crute, was a highlight in reviews.
  4. Nick, played by Mason Gooding, is one of many nonwhite romantic leads in recent high school films.


References:




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

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The Sequined Sikh Elvis

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

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

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

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Vishavjit Singh’s Sikhtoons

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

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

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

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

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

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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.




Orientalized Masculinities in Contemporary Australian Cinema
Jane Park / The University of Sydney


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Lovers Sandy and Hiromitsu in Japanese Story.

On my final night in the U.S. before moving to Sydney last year, I finally got around to watching Romper Stomper. While Geoffrey Wright’s film about Aussie skinheads didn’t provide the most cheerful picture of my soon-to-be new country, I was struck by its viscerally engaging style and its representation of Asian characters. As many critics noted upon its release in 1992, Romper Stomper sucks viewers in with its active camera and pumping soundtrack, positioning us, albeit ambivalently, alongside the skinhead youth whose story is clearly foregrounded. Unsurprisingly, few critics had much to say about the role of the peripheral Asian figures that frame the movie: the Vietnamese immigrants in the opening who are beaten up by the white supremacist gang and soon avenged by angry members of their own community and the impersonal Japanese tourists in the end who snap pictures of the gang leader as he is being murdered on the beach by his best mate.

These framing scenes provide iconic images of two forms of Asian presence in contemporary Australian cinema. The first is that of the Asian tourist (usually Japanese) who is welcome as long as she or he ultimately returns home. As Asian Australian film scholar Olivia Khoo convincingly argues, this figure must die if she or he stays in Oz, functioning ideologically as a necessary sacrifice used to further the inner development of the white protagonists. ((Khoo, Olivia. “Telling Stories: The Sacrificial Asian in Australian Cinema.” Journal of Intercultural Studies 27 (1-2): 45-63.)) The second image is that of the Asian immigrant (usually Vietnamese, Chinese or Lebanese) who, depending on the context, embodies either an economic and cultural threat to the (implicitly white) Australian nation or reaffirms its tolerant multiculturalism. Much like the dialectical binary of the model minority/gook articulated by Asian American historian Robert Lee, both positions render the racialized immigrant a conditionally white citizen who is expelled or otherwise punished as a foreign contagion as soon as she or he threatens to usurp the privilege of those in power. ((Lee, Robert. Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999. 180-204. ))

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How do Australian screens represent the masculinity of the Asian male?

What really surprised me is the central role that these iconic figures play as love interests to Anglo-Australian women in two fairly recent commercially successful and critically acclaimed Australian films. In Sue Brook’s Japanese Story (2003) Hiromitsu, a Japanese businessman enthralled by the outback has a (literally) short-lived affair with Sandy, an urban professional forced to be his chauffeur who herself is out of place in the harsh and stunning landscape. And in Rowan Wood’s Little Fish (2005) Vietnamese Australian drug dealer Johnny returns to Australia, ostensibly gone straight after a few years in Canada, hoping to resume his relationship with ex-junkie Tracy, who is trying unsuccessfully to start her own business in Cabramatta, the “Little Saigon” of Sydney.

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Tracy in Cabramatta

As I discuss in my forthcoming book, Asian men rarely appear as romantic partners for anyone, and especially white women, in Hollywood cinema due to still prevalent stereotypes of the feminized, desexualized or otherwise emasculated Asian male in the U.S.–stereotypes rooted in the history of Chinese male immigrants who were systematically ghettoized, forced to take feminized domestic jobs, and prevented from forming families thanks to anti-Asian exclusion laws. ((Yellow Future: Oriental Style in Contemporary Hollywood Cinema. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, forthcoming 2010.)) For this reason, I was interested to see how a romantic relationship between an Asian man and a white woman would play out on the big screen in Australia, a Western nation in the Pacific that draws culturally on Britain and the U.S. and economically on its Asian neighbors.

Sadly, both films fell short of my perhaps unrealistically high hopes. Outside the radical acknowledgment that Asian men might actually be desirable to white women, Japanese Story and Little Fish use the same tired tropes and techniques to represent sympathetic Asian characters as selfless “caregivers of color” to borrow Cynthia Sau-ling Wong’s phrase and thus unwittingly reveal the power hierarchies that continue to structure white fantasies of the exoticized and eroticized Asian “other.” ((Wong, Cynthia Sau-ling. “Diverted Mothering: Representations of Caregivers of Color in the Age of ‘Multiculturalism” in Glenn, Evelyn Nakano, Grace Chang and Linda Rennie Forcey, eds. Mothering: Ideology, Experience, and Agency. New York: Routledge, 1994. 70.))

The new twist on an old formula is the clever way in which these films successfully masquerade as anti-racist, colorblind narratives. Japanese Story appeals to white liberal audiences by showcasing the development of a taboo interracial relationship between a white woman and an Asian man, which can only happen in the liminal space of the road and the indigenous wilderness. While the film is beautifully shot and there are some funny and poignant moments of connection between the characters, it is difficult, as a Korean American female viewer, not to notice the blatant ways in which Hiro is orientalized, functioning as the compliant male Lotus Blossom for the ambiguously butchy Sandy, who seems to see in his smooth skin, lean physique, and poor English an alternative, more manageable masculinity to that of the big, loud, and dismissive Australian men who ignore her throughout the film. No surprise then that she dominates her submissive Asian lover in bed, literally putting on his pants before she mounts him in their first sexual encounter. Hiro takes the traditional position of the woman in the scene: he remains absolutely still as the camera follows her gaze to look down at him. Tellingly, when he finally takes sexual initiative, kissing her rather than being kissed, he unexpectedly and inexplicably dies after following her playful instructions to jump into a lake.

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Addictions and contagions.

In contrast Little Fish plays down Johnny’s racial difference even as it consistently plays up his cultural difference as a hybridized Vietnamese Australian. None of the Australian reviews I read of the film discuss the interracial aspect of the romance between Tracy and Johnny, and while most comment on its “authentic” setting, the implicit connections between the Vietnamese immigrant community and its association with drugs and gang violence is not discussed because, as my Australian colleagues informed me, this is already a given for the target audience of the film–most of whom would never venture into Cabramatta except for the occasional food tour. Likewise, the racial and cultural difference that Johnny embodies and that constitute the backdrop of Tracy’s working life is coded implicitly as a contagion, much like the drugs that form the central motif of the film. Tracy is still, it seems, addicted to the dangerous drug that is Johnny. Her family warns her to stay away from him yet she compulsively calls him (and he always comes running) only to flee from him for no discernible reason. On a more positive note, Johnny unlike Hiro, takes a more equal role in lovemaking and amazingly lives to see the end of the movie. I suppose that is something to celebrate. Yet I can’t help but feel a bit sad and perplexed that at a time when so many Asian countries have entered First World status, a mixed-race man is president of the United States, and the Australian prime minister speaks Mandarin, this is what we can claim as progress for representations of Asian people on the big screen.

Image Credits:

1. Lovers Sandy and Hiromitsu in Japanese Story.
2. How do Australian screens represent the masculinity of the Asian male?
3. Tracy in Cabramatta.
4. Addictions and contagions.

Please feel free to comment.




“Big Man on Campus Ladies”

Rosie the Riveter

Rosie the Riveter

I once had a wonderful conversation with my introduction to feminism class. The mostly nineteen-year-olds in attendance seemed pretty content to validate women staying at home and raising families. I thought I could cause trouble by arguing that it was their moral imperative to find work that they found rewarding and engage in it. Given the historical banishment of women from working in the public space, it rested on their shoulders, I argued, to not let neo-conservatism decimate the profound social effects of the feminist movement. Whether or not they chose to have children in addition to that was external to the discussion.

Now a year later, I am not at all sure whether I did more good than harm. I of course see it as my central mission to encourage women students to excel, and allow them to see the sociological evidence for the continuing oppression of women in patriarchal culture. And, I certainly want to model for my students that my life — a world of reading books, watching movies, and writing about them — is exemplary of how being happy and productive is more deeply rewarding than the status quo messages they often receive from parents, churches, and other apparatuses of conformity. However, a recent episode of the Oxygen cable network’s sit-com, Campus Ladies, has me thinking about that day in my feminism class in particular, and more generally about the pitiful status of university pedagogy in this very sick culture of ours.

Campus Ladies is a wonderful — politically smart and often quite hilarious — improvisational comedy created by Christen Sussin and Carrie Aizley about two middle-aged women, Joan and Barri, who decide to enroll in college. The show is executive produced by Cheryl Hines, who plays Larry David’s beleaguered wife on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. The show is important for a number of reasons, one of which is the way in which it attests to the spread of HBO techniques to other television outlets, in this case a women-centered basic cable network.

Curb Your Enthusiasm is a groundbreaking show, constructing hilarious comedy out of misanthropic behavior. For its New Year’s Eve programming, HBO offered a “cringe-athon,” airing all of the last season’s episodes back-to-back. When an emotional affect, the cringe, becomes the basis of an advertising scheme, we can be pretty confident a new narrative domain has been defined. However, Curb Your Enthusiasm is very much Larry David’s vanity show, building an axial narrative around his bad behavior. The women who surround him either suffer in a state of confusion (Cheryl) or are shrill and mean (Susie, his agent’s wife). The innovation of Campus Ladies is to apply the cringe-com method to female experience. What would the female equivalents of Larry David look like? What would they do?

The show gleans its social critique from outrageous gender reversals. In the series’ boldest episode, “No Means No,” Barri gives a Vicodin to the university’s star quarterback, Malcolm Rice. In a drug-induced state of freedom, Malcolm takes Barri into his fraternity house bedroom and confesses that he always wanted to be a star of musical theatre. He sings, in falsetto, “I can sing so high like Mandy Patinkin,” which creeps out even Barri. The scene resumes with them lying in bed, Barri in post-coital bliss, Malcolm in a state of confusion. Malcolm stumbles out of his room, screaming so all at the crowded party can hear him: “Barri Martin date raped me!” Barri and Joan suffer through the second act of the show, scorned by the entire campus community as the “raper” and her friend. However, things end happily when the Dean explains to Barri that she was Malcolm’s “moped,” “a woman whom a man wants to ride, but doesn’t want anyone to see riding.” Barri returns to the frat house with football-shaped cupcakes, hoping to apologize. When everyone continues to scorn her, Malcolm intervenes and announces to everyone that Barri did not rape him. Barri offers a hilarious counter-apology: “If mounting you saddle-style made you uncomfortable, I’m sorry too.” The show thus takes a very serious, and taboo, campus social problem, and renders it subject to comedic treatment by reversing the gender roles of the participants. Like all great comedy, the show sides with the outcasts — the Iranian Abdul; the overweight R.A., Guy; and Joan and Barri, the middle-aged women constantly harassed by perky teenage girls who make them feel as if they do not belong at college.

the cast of Campus Ladies

the cast of Campus Ladies

The episode that has me all aflutter, however, is entitled “All Nighter,” and features Joan and Barri immediately getting themselves into a cringe-worthy situation. They arrive late at the first meeting of their class, “Women in American History.” In a series of comic interruptions, they completely disrupt Prof. Fabre’s class. She finally kicks them out. However, it is Prof. Fabre’s outright discriminatory behavior that is remarkable. When Fabre refuses to believe that Joan and Barri are students, she quips, “Perhaps if you leave in time, you might get home and see a new episode of Oprah.” The students chuckle behind their backs, thus linking Fabre’s behavior to the perky blonde twins who torment Joan and Barri throughout the series. Later, when Joan and Barri go to Prof. Fabre’s office to try to apologize, Fabre again heaps on the feminist vitriol: “If the two of you have come to swap recipes, I’m not really in the mood.”

The show works to establish Joan and Barri’s victory over Fabre in the oddest political terms. Fabre demands that the women deliver an oral presentation on an important figure in feminism. Joan and Barri pull an all-nighter trying to decide on their topic. They finally choose Fabre herself. Joan and Barri out Prof. Fabre before the students, reporting on how she