Tuesday, August 17, 2010
Racism and Social Responsibility, aka Why I can’t ‘just enjoy’ a movie
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.”
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.
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.
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.