Category Archives: Racism

Watching Mel Brooks in 2016

On November 9, I sent myself an email. The world breaks, again and again, read the subject line. Maya Angelou supplied the body of the message with her poem “Still I Rise.” I don’t care if that’s a cliche.

Yesterday I wrote myself a note: “The culture comes into consciousness and is repeatedly repressed. Constant vigilance!”

The dangerous myth of progress is that it’s cumulative and linear. But progress isn’t set-it-and-forget-it. Progress toward social justice, toward a world in which everyone has access to basic resources and can exercise their human rights, requires constant maintenance. People in power are loath to cede any of it, never more so when their positions have become reified to the point that they believe any questioning of who occupies positions of power is an encroachment upon their occupation of said positions. One group’s gain is another’s loss in the zero-sum paradigm that governs our society.

Backlash is never not a possibility. People are never not at risk.
A few weeks ago, I sat down with my family to an enjoy a diversion: Mel Brook’s History of the World, Part I. We chuckled a few times, but it was not as funny as I remembered. There are many reasons for this, but chief among them is that we’re living in the aftermath of November 8.

Somehow, the sequence where a caveman assaults a cavewoman with a stone club, thereby enacting the first marriage, did not inspire laughter, nor did bearing witness to a monarch’s serial sexual assault of his ladies in waiting. Watching an enslaved black man repeatedly argue for his life, never mind his freedom, was distinctly uncomfortable. The abuse of power was rampant, and played for laughs.

The movie, which came out in 1981, had a particular temporal relationship to tragedy. A perceived–discursive, at least–distance from assault on marginalized bodies. Times were relatively good; collective suffering was a distant memory. There was space to skewer that which had plagued previous generations.

Today, we’ve come too close to these realities, too near the precipice of the possibility that our material circumstances are about to get worse, our rights may be called into question, our environment–and by extension, humanity’s future–may be laid waste in sacrifice to the altar of extraction capitalism.

The discomfort that came from watching History of the World, Part I made me think of Brook’s other comedies that wouldn’t play as well today, chiefly To Be or Not to Be and The Producers. Both rely heavily on lampooning Hitler for their comedy. “Springtime for Hitler” was a hilarious showstopper in 1968–and again in the late 1990’s. But today, in a country where we can no longer agree that Nazis are bad, that premise becomes less humorous and more tone-deaf. Sinister, even.

“Never again,” we keep declaring. Except it’s already happened.

When I was a teenager, I thought there was nothing left to fight for. Then the U.S. declared war in Iraq. The more years that pass, the more intractable achieving social justice seems to become. There is always something to fight for. And that means that sometimes, laughter has to wait.
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Filed under Beginning of the Body, Contemporary, Gender Trouble, Historical, Power, Racism, Television and Movies

Poetic Interlude: Special Announcement

I’m thrilled to announce that my first published poem, “Tract Home Take Down” has found a home in the debut issue of Angels Flight • literary west, a new magazine dedicated to celebrating the complex realities of Los Angeles and the artists who live and work here.

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Filed under Contemporary, Meta, Nostalgia, Power, Racism, Wordplay

It’s All About You: Korean Air sells the virtue of American selfishness

At first, Korean Air’s “All About You” global ad campaign seemed like a fanciful satire. Orchestras and international landmarks glide across the heavens. The titular song (calculated to trigger James Bond flashbacks) lulls rich, white travelers to sleep while airline employees pamper them with serene smiles on their faces.

“At the heart of our world is you,” a female voice intones.

This had to be a joke…right?

Research and repeated viewings have since disabused me of that hopeful notion. While the commercial presents as tongue-in-cheek, its earnest undertones and ultimate endgame [read: profit] subverts any such satirical integrity. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.

The commercial (unwittingly?) lampoons the archetypal American business traveler, selling the airline by showcasing what is traditionally the subtext of American ads: the consumer as the center of a commodified universe. A be-stubbled white man closes his eyes, encased in headphones. A white woman plucks a giant shrimp from the sky with chop-sticks. Another makes meaningful eye contact with the folks at home before she (presumably) takes a sip of her freshly shaken martini. But not before her blue cocktail turns into a round pool featuring female synchronized swimmers, who in turn become the rods and cones of her blue eye.

It’s all about you, indeed.

It simultaneously celebrates and spoofs American travel fantasies, often at the expense of Korean women. Each of the travelers being served in the commercial are white. All of the airline employees occupying service positions (flight attendant, bar-tender) are portrayed by Korean women. Meanwhile, men exert their dominion in the cloudy kitchens. The shadowy background dancers–per James Bond standards–are all women, serving the voyeuristic eye of the casual American viewer. The commercial is selling its target consumers–business travelers and a (largely female) leisure class–what Korean Air presumes to be their ideal version of themselves, all while reinforcing a (racist) status quo that devalues the women serving them.

In short, the commercial nails white American entitlement by showcasing aspirational consumerism that trades in the tired trope of Korean women servicing white clients. The only “modern” twist is that many of these clients are themselves women.

*Note: This goes live around the fifth anniversary of the blog’s first “real” post, so I thought it only fitting to return to the blog’s roots of deconstructing commercials for gender trouble. Ah, nostalgia…

 

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Filed under Contemporary, Deconstructing Commercials, Gender Trouble, Racism

Embodying the Other: Halloween, Thanksgiving, Regret, Hope

When I was about 6 years old, I used two paper bags from the grocery store to make myself an “Indian” costume for Thanksgiving. (It was the early 90’s. “Native American” wasn’t in use among 1st graders yet.) I was, and am, very white. No one in my family thought this home-made costume was problematic. On the contrary, I remember being praised and photographed for being cute and creative.

Wearing that costume was wrong. I wish I hadn’t done it. I wish someone had pointed out why this was an offensive sartorial choice.

As we near Halloween, we’re seeing the yearly outpouring of thoughtful articles about costumes, sexualization, and cultural appropriation. I hope, if I have kids, that I am able to communicate the importance of cultural respect and appropriate costume choices. Why wearing another person’s heritage is racist, violent, and erases their humanity. It reduces identity to a commodity, to something a white person can put on and, crucially, take off, because a white person has the power to remain unmarked.

It only gets worse when you consider the difference between costumes designed for women. Alden Wicker wrote recently about the intersection of sexist & racist costumes. Though not simultaneously, I, too, have been guilty of both. I hope to teach my children that “sexy” costumes are yet another way for our culture to control women and tell them that they only have value insofar as they cater to the straight male gaze.

With knowledge and respect for people of all cultural backgrounds and genders, perhaps my future children won’t make the kinds of offensive, dis-empowering mistakes I have.

I must do better than younger me, for future us.

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Filed under Childhood, Commodification, Gender Trouble, Power, Racism

Edible Miscegenation: Food for Thought (groan) on a Recent Ad Campaign

Full disclosure time: I have a nasty note-taking habit, and as a result, the forthcoming book review of Sorry I Pooped in Your Shoe has turned into a bit of a term paper. A term paper that needs some serious work. We’re talking outlines, spreadsheets, coding, lists of themes and tropes, meta-structuring–obscene amounts of (dis)organization, here. And, if history is any indication*, most of this thorough preparation will be ultimately ignored in a sleep-deprived “holy fuck, fuck this fucking shitpile of amassed notes and ragged half-finished paragraphs I’m just gonna write the fucking thing I can’t even gaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhrgh!” moment of desperation.

So stay tuned for that monstrous gem. In the meantime, here are some disorganized and underdeveloped thoughts on a commercial about a new snack food. Fair warning–it’s a messy one:

Mel the Milkbite “has issues.” Yes, yes he does. Milkbite is basically a granola bar, and the advertisers have been tasked with coming up with a clever way to convince American consumers that this particular granola bar is different. It’s what we’ve all been waiting for. It offers hereforeto undiscovered combinations of deliciousness. Their marketing strategy has been to produce a virtual mini-series of these commercials. In each, we are made privy to the fraught inner life of one, Mr. Mel Milkbite, depressed offspring of milk and granola. “Who are you?” he asks his reflection. “I don’t know,” is the whispered reply. This identity crisis seems to stem from his mixed-food lineage.

One commercial in particular seems to play on the idea of a (damaged) mixed-parent child who confronts said parents about their decision to procreate. “You didn’t think, did you?” About how it would affect me, he goes on to say. The idea is that inhabiting an interstitial category makes life hard: one is “unclean” based on normative social structures, matter out-of-place. Mel is a product of miscegenation, and we’re supposed to laugh at this, or at his having “issues” because of it. This is where things get complicated, and I’m not going to pretend that I can tease everything out perfectly. But I do think it’s worth at least trying to unpack what’s going on here.

On a superficial level, it’s pretty dumb that a milk/granola-bar is talking and has an inner life. There’s a type of surreal, absurdist humor in that by itself. But to make the character’s inner life so fraught with the internalization of social stigma is…crazy awful. And in that awfulness, in that banging together of expectations, also comes the humor.

Broadly stated, humor says what cannot be said in serious contexts. It draws its power from placing categories of things together that cannot normally coexist, often exploding them. This is the unexpected aspect of humor–combining those things that are not normally combined (e.g., a granola bar that talks…to a therapist, no less). The other, related aspect, is that one of speaking the unspeakable: drawing attention to what is rendered invisible in daily life. In a way, humor combats erasure and epistemic violence. The ugly side of this is poorly timed and unsympathetic “ironic” humor, to be discussed further on in this “essay.”

To get back to the break-down of the layered humor in the commercials, besides the inherent silliness of a talking snack food is the fact that Mel takes himself very seriously. This is another source of the intended humor of the whole ad campaign: we, the audience, are not supposed to take Mel seriously. We are meant, on some level at least, to dismiss his serious concerns as those of a fake, normally (hopefully!) inanimate character made of food. It’s ridiculousness played as seriousness, which I’m tempted to call satire or irony, but I’m just so confused at this point that I can’t quite suss it out.

The humor of Mel’s milkbite commercials at least partly comes from making fun of the very serious issue of racism and how it plays out in cases where children have parents that society marks as racially different. The commercial serves to reinforce this taboo against miscegenation…or does it question the taboo? I’m not entirely sure if the “humor” in these commercials is combatting or exacerbating the stigma…or denying that the stigma exists all together. But I’m obviously leaning toward the last two.

The commercial takes license to make light of racism because its creators seem to believe that our society is past all that. Look how ridiculous we were to have had anti-miscegenation laws! If those still existed, we’d have a bunch of depressed Mels wandering around, blaming their parents for giving them such a hard life. Boy, I sure am glad we aren’t racist, anymore! In any case, the fact that we identify with Mel and feel sorry for him (do we? or do we think his problem isn’t serious in this day and age? are we just laughing at him?) means that we recognize the taboo being referenced. In encouraging the audience to both understand and then dismiss Mel’s perspective, it at once negates real people’s lived experiences and makes the (faulty) declaration that we are post-racism. But we can’t be post-anything if we still understand the signs of that thing. And anyway, is this laughter at all healing? Because the humor is very dry…almost ironic. And that gets dicey, as I will try to discuss below.

I’d argue that the existence of this campaign and all the cultural baggage it is trading on doesn’t point to a post-racism culture, but rather to one that has a more complicated relationship with its racism. This commercial can only exist in a culture where its producers (in this case, marketers and advertisers) believe that the culture is post-racism. This makes the brand of humor “safe” enough for a mass-media audience. It still messes with expectations, but in a more meta way that comments on a social situation that is assumed to be long past. The producers seem to believe this humorous take on a historical reality–setting it in the present and using a snack food as its face–won’t offend consumers. That it will resonate just enough and in the right ways in order to sell the product. But it’s also arguably a present reality, and even if it weren’t, its “humorous” take on a decidedly un-funny cultural taboo that oppressed real people in real ways is insensitive. (The argument against the insensitivity claim would be something about irony and being post-race and why can’t I just take a joke, which I will touch on later and you can read more about at Jezebel.)

The commercial may trade in deadpan ridiculousness, but it’s still based in something very real. The undercurrent of (anti-)miscegenation is extended to and reintensionalized in this extremely absurd context, rendering it less serious, less worthy of careful consideration. But it is serious. The commercial is playing on the idea that the children of people who aren’t “the same” in one way or another have it harder. That they’re damaged. So, it’s both that this creates issues for the kid, and then creates the stereotype that these “types” of kids have issues, thus making the “project,” if you will, of actually combatting these taboos a bad thing in itself, instead of creating a world where these taboos don’t exist because there are more interstitial people, who then become accepted categories in their own right. (I know that sentence is confusing, but it’s too far gone to help at this point. I don’t even know.) But the point is that making light of the history and ramifications of anti-miscegenation sentiment and policy, “mixed” children of all kinds, and the current (effectively ignored) lived realities of people who inhabit this interstitial social categories is harmful. These commercials operate in a sort of post-racism haze of denial. Anti-miscegenation is over, so it’s okay to joke about it. These commercials try to get us to believe that taking it all seriously would be ridiculous in this day and age–we’d be like Mel.

The thing is, we don’t live in a post-racial world, as Lindy West points out. The “humor” of trying to make it seem like we’re post-race by framing someone’s difficult lived experience as mixed-race individual as funny–implicitly discounting that this experience could be less-than-rosy–falls flat. It makes fun of the individual for having “issues” as a result of their racialized social location; it belittles their own understanding of their particular experience. And that is pretty wrong.

Now, not being what our society would deem a “person of color,” I cannot speak to the lived experience of someone from a mixed-race background. But I don’t imagine it’s always a walk in the park, simply because our society remains socially stratified, and one of the markers that keeps certain populations in disadvantaged socio-economic positions is skin color. Skin color is taken as the definitive sign that signifies one’s race; as if it were a natural thing. As if it weren’t a cultural construct (which it is, and an arbitrary one at that). And in America, we still see people’s skin color. We treat each other in various ways because of this type of discriminatory vision. Now, are mixed-race couples more accepted than they were 50 years ago? Sure…but only in some contexts. Are the children of  mixed-race couples less subject to ridicule? Again, it depends. We can maybe make a sweeping generalization that things are “better,” but it is dangerous to do so. And to base an ad campaign on this very real and personal part of our cultural history (and cultural present) is hugely problematic… and because it’s meant to be funny, it’s quite insulting, as well.

To wrap up before this all gets even more out of hand, let’s get back to the milkbite character himself. Mel, if we are to take his perspective, is the product of an unholy union between milk and granola. The irony, of course, is that plenty of folks enjoy this very combination. The fact that mixing them is “normal” is why milkbite exists as a product in the first place: created to fill a newly discovered [read: invented] niche, marketed as the answer to granola-and-milk-eaters’ as yet unrealized unfulfilled need for a convenient snack that pairs their two favorite things. Milkbite was created because he should have existed all along–so the marketers want us to believe. He’s what’s been missing in this world of fast “health” food.

Is that why we laugh at Mel? Because his underlying “issue” is that he fails to grasp his true role in the world? Bringing us all together in a holy harmony of interstitial bliss? Is milkbite the future? Let’s look to the heated discourse surrounding the controversial ad that South Africa’s Democratic Alliance party put out… They don’t live in the future, and neither do we. In fact, the very existence of this series of commercials implicitly arguing that we do live in the post-race future proves, ironically, that we don’t.

*UPDATE* Balancing Jane has also written about the disturbing nature of this ad campaign and provides a link to sign a petition against it.

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*For example, I once compiled over 200 pages of notes in preparation for a ten page final. Yep. Rifuckingdiculous. It’s kind of a problem.

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Filed under Contemporary, Deconstructing Commercials, Racism