Thursday, December 1, 2011

Representation in the Media (and How Screwed We Appear to Be)

As a film studies major at [Rich, White Hipster College], I often look to the media to help me understand people.  I think that when we study the outlets people use for expression and the things they create, we can learn a lot about the mentality and the culture that fostered the creation.  Of course the media is never really an accurate reflection of the truth, but it is a decent indication of what the people want to see.  When The Cosby Show came out (I am obsessed with The Cosby Show and have to talk about it) the average Black family in America was not nearly as well off as the Huxtables were.  In fact, the show has often been criticized for being so unrealistic in that respect.  However, when you look at television ratings from the 1980s, you see that The Cosby Show was rated #1 for five solid seasons.  Clearly, America was beginning to warm up to the idea of successful Black people and true assimilation.  We’re still not entirely there but it would be impossible to look at how far we’ve come and ignore the impact of The Cosby Show

Right now I’m taking a course on Middle Eastern cinema and media.  Earlier this week I had to watch the film Towelhead for this class.  Based on the novel by Alicia Erian, the film tells the story of a thirteen-year-old Arab-American girl growing up in Texas during the Gulf War.  She is psychologically abused by her white mother, physically abused by her Lebanese father, bullied by virtually every person in her school, and (most horrifically) raped by her neighbour.  

Now, it’s not a spectacular film but it’s okay and, anyway, I think that the themes it deals with are more important than the composition of the film itself.  The thing is this was the umpteenth screening for my Middle Eastern Cinema class where rape and/or abuse occurred.  All semester, we have been watching films where the most godawful things happen to the principle characters.  Today I finally confronted my professor.  At the beginning of the semester he said that he hoped to challenge what we thought of the Middle East.  Well, we’ve talked a lot about Edward Said and Orientalism; we’ve talked a lot about the veil and the most recent uprisings and the role of the internet in those uprisings but then we study these films like Scheherazade Tell Me  A Story, Persepolis, Under the Bombs, Head-On, my favourite, The Yacoubian Building, and now Towelhead.  Ultimately, I feel like we have explored more about these different cultures than we would have in our everyday lives, but I’m not sure how much our preconceived notions have been challenged when we watch these films.

In the Western world, we have been conditioned to view that part of the globe as savage, violent, irrational, and oppressive to women.  Now, I’m not gonna say a fucking thing one way or the other because I’m not from any of those countries, I’ve never been to any of those countries, and I don’t know a damn thing I didn’t learn in a classroom, so it’s really not my place.  However, I will say that based on what I’m seeing, it certainly seems that way.  But you know what?  It doesn’t look too good in this country either.  So, what I’m wondering about right now is, how are we being portrayed?  

Lest you think I’m talking about how the U.S. constantly comes across as ignorant, belligerent, arrogant, greedy, imperialist dickwads-because, like, we kind of are- I should clarify what I mean by “we.”  As it says in the subtitle of this blog, I am a poor, fat, queer Latina, so my “we” is kind of directed towards other people who fit those descriptions.  You know, the ones Hollywood doesn’t make movies about; the ones whose voices rarely reach the mainstream.   There are just so many thin, straight, white people in movies and on TV and it pisses me off because me and my kind are fucking blips on the radar.  

When I think about which characters are the best stand-ins for me, I think of Santana on Glee.  

First of all, I detest Glee, so I’m not thrilled about this.  My girlfriend loves it though so I’ve seen a few episodes and it’s hard to ignore the similarities.  However, there are obvious differences; I am fat while Naya Rivera is quite thin, and I haven’t seen enough episodes to learn about her socio-economic status but I imagine that she’s middle class if she goes to that white-ass suburban school.  So Santana doesn’t exactly do it for me.  The next character that comes to mind is America Ferrera in Real Women Have Curves.  Of course, I’m not first-generation American and she’s not queer so it’s back to the drawing board.  The only character that I can come up with whose identity is so compatible with my own is Oz, played by Judy Marte in On the Outs.

Oz is a poor butch Latina growing up in the inner city and while she isn’t explicitly out of the closet, she is often perceived as a lesbian and might as well be one.  Also, she’s not exactly fat but Judy Marte is pretty thick in this film.  For all intents and purposes, Oz is my identity doppelganger.  Now, let’s have a look at her life, shall we?  Well she’s a drug dealer who gets imprisoned during the course of the film.  FABULOUS.  That’s the exact path I’ve always envisioned myself taking.  I’m glad that this is how I am portrayed in the media.  It’s so comforting to see such a positive outcome for a character like that.  I can hardly wait to start following in her footsteps.   

I don’t know about you but I think it’s severely fucked up how even in 2011, only a certain type of person gets to be a part of the storytelling process.  We’re not even gonna talk about The Help.  I would like to know why we’re still so closed in.  Why are we still so afraid of hearing other people speak?  And, while we’re at it, why are we still so bent on hurting each other? 

When people look back at our movies and TV shows and music videos to learn about us, what are they going to see?  They’re going to look at Glee (ewww) and see people who are terrified of coming out to their families- and for good reason, when those people respond by kicking them out of the house.  They’re going to look at news coverage of the Occupy Wall Street/Oakland/etc movement and see people being pepper sprayed in the street for peacefully protesting a corrupt government that would love nothing more than to keep us all in poverty.   They’re going to look at this Penn State fiasco and think that we cared more about some fucking football games than we cared about putting a child molester behind bars.  They’re going to see a society in which we actually needed to create the It Gets Better campaign because the present is just so shitty for some people that we need to plead with them to stick it out.

If we don’t change some of this shit, that’s how we’re going to look- because that’s how we will have been.


  1. Yin and Yang (Yinyang) or the balance of polar opposites applies to so many things in life including where we look to form our perceptions of the world. Not just movies, but all forms of media. I watch Fox News and CNN because you can only get half of the story from either one. If you read the New York Times you might want to read the Washington Times to get the other side of the story. These media outlets cater to their advertisers, who cater to the public. I can keep opening minds one person at a time, that people are just people worldwide. One of the guys on a captured Iraq smuggling vessels was a Dad just wanting to put food on his table and put his kids through school. Just like many of the guys on the ship I was on. It is really hard to dislike anybody if you take the time to learn about them. Your post is the reality today and for many tomorrows, so I will continue to have to get my news from no less than two outlets to get the whole story for a long time to come.

  2. CATO, that's a fair way of viewing things. The main problem though, is that her perspective isn't even being told or addressed ("blip on the radar"), so even fairminded viewers like yourself wouldn't have much access or insight to the often ignored angles.