Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Racism and Social Responsibility, aka Why I can’t ‘just enjoy’ a movie


.I'm a 23 year old Sinhalese woman in Minnesota by way of Dubai by way of Sri Lanka. I am a Womanist, and part of my womanism is figuring out how to be in solidarity with my transnational sisters worldwide. I'm a daughter, a sister, a partner and a writer. I'm a brown girl who knows Shakespeare by heart and devours anything Toni Morrison. I believe in radical, revolutionary living and loving.  I blog at Irresistible Revolution.

Oftentimes have I heard you speak of one who commits a wrong as though he were not one of you, but a stranger unto you and an intruder upon your world.

  But I say that even as the holy and the righteous cannot rise beyond the highest which is in each one of you,

  So the wicked and the weak cannot fall lower than the lowest which is in you also.”

                                                                                              -Kahlil Gibran
So I’ve been home (in Dubai) for July, and as per tradition, my brother and I bond by watching horror flicks. He is a horror aficionado and continuously scours the Internet for whatever creepy fare celluloid has to offer. I myself enjoy a well-made scare, and I list “The Omen” and “The Ring” among my favorite movies.

But, being a committed social analyst, I can’t ever just ‘turn off’ my perspective when I’m watching a movie. Consequently, I have always been fascinated by how horror movies employ otherness to maximize fear and revulsion in their audience.  The filmic devices employed to create horror, say a great deal about what the filmmakers’ intended audience is, and their assumptions about what things are commonly feared and reviled.

Race, gender and sexuality are often deployed, both subtly and overtly, in the delineation of monsters, killers, rapists, ghosts, werewolves, vampires et al. In the context of US race relations, horror/ fantasy flicks are a prime medium for examining how white privilege/ normativity is constructed, perpetuated and reinforced. Additionally, considering that horror flicks are often touted as cathartic experiences, we need to question how our fear, suspense and culminating relief are orchestrated, and how this reflects our real-world approach to crime, deviance and punishment.

Whenever POC talk about racism in movies, naysayers are quick to retaliate with  ‘oh whatever, it’s just fantasy’ or ‘there are white villains/killers/ psychopaths too’. What they don’t acknowledge, is that whiteness is not what’s employed to create fear and disgust.  In Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, mental illness is the horror. In the recent flick ‘Orphan‘, an un-American, Eastern-European quality are the markers of otherness.

It’s the ultimate evidence of white privilege that whiteness itself always escapes scrutiny, at the expense of scapegoating  femaleness, or sexuality, or class, or, in the case of serial killers, mental illness/ disability. The perpetrators are othered as so mentally ill or deformed that they are beyond humanity. By this convenient scapegoating, not only is the hierarchy of bodies enforced and perpetuated, but we as a society are made to feel no accountability for the crimes being perpetrated. I am a firm believer in the fact that crimes, no matter how heinous or beyond the pale of humanity they seem, are always a reflection of the society they are committed in.

In ‘Orphan’, the eponymous character is a young girl who in fact, is not a young girl at all, but a 30 year old woman with a rare hormonal condition that inhibits physical development. The woman/girl is revealed as a deranged, cold-blooded, manipulative killer;  she tries to seduce her adopted father, and, enraged by his rejection, sets out to murder the whole family. The movie tells us that this is a pattern of previous murders committed by her after escaping from an asylum.

The movie never prompts the audience to consider how social construction of illness, disability and gender, as well as the inhumane conditions of asylums, might play a hand: she is mentally ill/ non-normatively bodied, and we need nothing else to convince us of her evilness.

With vampire extravaganzas like ‘Twilight’  and ‘Dracula’, white, male, able-bodied hegemony is firmly centered. It’s no coincidence that pop culture has never welcomed a female vampire who can wield potency and charm like Edward Cullen and Dracula, and that vampire culture (the ‘ Volturi’  in Meyers’ work and ‘The Coven of the Articulate’ in Anne Rice) is almost invariably European. White, male, upper-class bodies having unearthly power seems normal, nay highly desirable, in a society where white male supremacy is so deeply entrenched. The Volturi and the Cullens are considered sophisticated, classical, admirable: their whiteness absolves the horror of vampirism.

I mentioned earlier that even the most horrific crimes imaginable can be attributed (in my view) to social patterns and conditioning. Rape, battery, torture and serial murder are not simply the results of mental illness/ poverty/ or any other form of socially constructed deviance.  They occur in relationship to their environment; in a society built on forcible domination of bodies, it takes no large stretch of the imagination to conceive how rapists and killers are made.  Did you see that I said ‘made’  and not ‘born’? I think the diction is an important reminder for us that none of us are wholly innocent, and the more terrible an act of violence is, the deeper should be our scrutiny and self-reflection about the kind of society we have built and want to perpetuate.

Note: I think I first came across the term ‘hierarchy of bodies’  in one of Renee’s posts. It’s a great term for describing how oppression functions, and I wanna make sure she gets cred for it.