Monday, July 16, 2012

I know it's racist but...

Last night on an Internet forum I made a comment that Forrest Gump was a racist film (it is, really. Think about it*.). I was astounded at the vehemence of the responses I received disagreeing with my statement (which is fine: opinions are like noses – we all have one). One poster said my argument was “absurd”, which is my second favourite insult of all time following “preposterous!” (Although, after having reading The Sense of an Ending I kind of like “That is philosophically self-evident” as the wankiest shut-down ever). I’m not surprised that the racism in Forrest Gump is often missed because it is insidious in that it’s very well hidden behind the idiot savant America rah rah stuff but I was very surprised at the level of offence that was taken because some stranger on the Internet said the film was racist. It struck me as a little odd.  Then I started thinking…

Film is a funny thing. It’s ubiquitous in that everyone watches movies, so that it becomes a cultural dialogue that’s more shared than any other sort I can think of. It’s an incredibly seductive medium – the cinematic apparatus is set up to draw the viewers into the story so that they identify with characters and care what happens to them. It also carries the illusion of being real – when we watch characters kiss on screen we are actually watching two real people kiss – but it’s not actually real, it’s a mediated representation of reality that works very hard to present itself as true. A cinematic language has developed within which Hollywood films usually operate that we, as seasoned cineliterate viewers, are familiar with – for example, the guy gets the girl and black guys can be the President of the United States or the Head Cop or the buddy but not the love interest (disclaimer: unless he is Will Smith or Denzel Washington). We are so conditioned to these rules and standards that most of the time we don’t even notice that they’re being used and this is why film is an ideological medium – it presents a view of the world as normal, natural and unproblematic when the filmic world is anything but.

Now I know there’s people reading this who are all like ‘It’s just a movie! I just watch it for fun! There’s no meaning to it.’. If that’s you, move along – this post is not for you. Knitting pictures and discussions of cats will be back tomorrow! See you then!

Back on point: I study film theory, which examines how and why films work the way they do. Why do you identify with this character but not that character? What does it mean that most movies contain conversations between men that aren’t about women but rarely contain conversations between women that aren’t about men (this one’s a no-brainer – movies are patriarchal, just like the society that produced them). It shouldn’t be a surprise that most Hollywood films are exclusionary of just about everyone who isn’t a white middle class male. This is an uncomfortable fact to face, because if we start accepting that movies present a way of life as natural, normal and unproblematic that is impossible for like 90% of the world’s population, we start to question if the pleasure that comes from watching movies is some sort of masochism or, more realistically, a collective false aspirational dream (I love movies and I love film theory but man, it is depressing! Hegemonic oppression everywhere I look). I think that’s why I got such a strong response to the suggestion that Forrest Gump is a racist film – these women loved Forrest Gump and if it’s racist and they watched it and didn’t notice the racism them it means they’re racist too and the film becomes tainted some way and they don’t want it to be.

Well, rest assured – racist is as racist does. If there’s one thing that studying film theory has taught me is that films contain multiple meanings (“complex polysemy” is the technical term) and we are not passive subjects but active viewers who pick and chose which parts of the story we focus on. It’s fine to love a text that is in some ways really wrong. Some of my best friends are politically incorrect texts (not really, but you see what I was doing there). So, in the spirit of acknowledging when we know what we love is wrong, I give you my Top 3 I know it’s _______ but…

1.    Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Yes, it’s terribly racist. Yes, Ms Mitchell was a horrible bigot with a terrible way of looking at the world. But this book is so entertaining and Scarlett O’Hara is such a terrific heroine and it’s so much fun! I heart it. (As a side point, have you read this hilarious retelling of GWTW? Don't forget to read the comments - they're wonderful. The Internet was made for moments like these.)

2.    Any Disney princess movie.

I’m not going to sugarcoat it at all – these movies are awful in terms of gender politics. Take my personal favourite Aladdin as an example. Some may argue that it’s a positive feminist take on traditional marriage because Jasmine stands up for herself and picks her own husband. But why does she even need a husband at all? Jasmine, you can rule on your own. You can even shave your hairline and wear some fierce bodices Queen Elizabeth 1 style if you want - you actually don’t need a man to be subservient to! But then ‘A Friend Like Me’ comes on and my resistance is gone. In Beauty and the Beast, even Belle’s name describes her narrative function – she’s just beauty personified! Because it is beauty saves the savage beast – not intelligence, humour, independence or wit, but beauty. Excellent message for all the girls there. These films are inherently sexist because neither of them would have worked if the male and female roles had been reversed – if Aladdin had had to marry and Jasmine had tricked him by pretending to be someone else she would have been called a gold-digger or an opportunist. If Belle had been ugly would the Beast have been asked to save her or are ugly women unredeemable? So they are horribly anti feminist films…but I still love them. A Whole New World indeed.

3. Robert Redford

I think it’s important to note here that when I talk about Robert Redford, I am talking about Robert Redford the star (where star = picture personality + extratextual discourse) rather than Robert Redford the person, who I don’t know and am very unlikely to meet any time soon.

Robert Redford is a ridiculously handsome man. His name is invoked as a shorthand for ‘very handsome’ (just google ‘He’s no Robert Redford’ to see the usage of the term). He starred in The Way We Were, one of the all-time top ladies night in movies ever, so he’s got to be feminist friendly, right? Wrong. For starters, his Hubbell Gardner in The Way We Were rejected the fabulous K-K-Katie for a non-challenging pretty blonde because she was easier - just like a jerk would do. That’s not good!  Then there’s all those movies about relationships between men (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, All The President’s Men, Spy Game, The Great Waldo Pepper, The Last Castle), the movies where he just uses women for sex (The Candidate, Downhill Racer, The Sting) or takes women by force (3 Days of the Condor, Tell them Willie Boy is Here). This is a man who, although irresistible to women, doesn’t need women to succeed (The Electric Horseman, Lions for Lambs, almost every single one of the movies listed above) and to whom loving a woman can prove fatal or near-fatal (Havana, Up Close and Personal, The Natural). Add to that his extra-textual discourse about being an all-American man who travelled around Europe being moody before settling down with a 17-year-old Mormon, impregnating her then building a house in the mountain with his own two hands before leaving her behind and travelling the world making movies while having women faint at his feet (it really happened while he was filming The Electric Horseman. He makes women swoon). He’s a Man’s Man who likes Manly things like baseball and skiing and building things on mountains not sissy things like cooking or cleaning or respecting the intelligence of one’s wimmenfolk (this despite that fact that his magically-not-greying hair clearly requires a lot more hours in a salon chair covered in foil than my hair does and he always wears a lot of bling – did I mention he built a house on a mountain with his own two hands like a Man). Being near the Robert Redford persona is a perilous place for women to be but I heart him. I know that it’s wrong but I heart Robert Redford and I think he’s really beautiful.

So there are my three guilty secrets. Anyone else prepared to share their I know it’s________ but… with me?

* If you don’t see it and you’re interested in learning more about why I’m right, I recommend Flatlining on the Field of Dreams: Cultural Narratives in the Time of Ronald Reagan by Alan Nadal, but I warn you after reading this you will never look at the Back to the Future films the same way again.


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