Sunday, July 19, 2020

Has Hollywood finally decided to fight “Reel Life Racism”

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Al Jolson in Warner Bros. publicity photo for the film The Jazz Singer (1927) | Source: Wikimedia

Back in the 1960s, when the Civil Rights Movement was slowly gaining momentum in the United States, broadcasting services were employed to gather support for the movement. Images of various kinds of atrocities and violence being rendered to nonviolent Black demonstrators were broadcasted into American houses to raise awareness about the movement.

However, the response of Hollywood so far can be explained in a single word- tragic! Hollywood as a major media and content producer has massively shaped the American culture. However it has not much to show as a positive influence on race issues.

A classic 1940’s musical movie, Holiday Inn had the famous song in which White stars performed in blackface. In a 1980s hit, “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” the Indians are depicted as barbaric and uncivilised. The list of such racial stereotypes is huge to be reproduced here.

Legendary Hollywood actor John Wayne made highly offensive comments in a playboy interview. His exact words are, “I believe in white supremacy until the Blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don't believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people.” He further goes on to make a series of comments, that ideally should not be coming from someone with so much influence in Hollywood.

Many legendary actors and industry icons too have struggled due to racism in Hollywood. Bruce Lee is a fine example of a person who fought against racism in the industry and refused to be cast in many roles that portrayed Chinese people in a negative light. He ultimately moved back to Hong Kong, partly due to the lack of appropriate roles. Actress Lucy Liu has also spoken about how she was too naïve to understand back in the early days as to why her friend would get multiple auditions every day, while she managed two or three in a month.

In 2015, there was a massive uproar regarding the Oscar winners after the academy awarded all 20 nominations to white actors. It quickly gained momentum with the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite becoming a global trend. Before #OscarsSoWhite, no one would have bothered to notice that 86% of top films predominantly featured white actors.

As per a Washington Post survey, film directors who ranked as the most influential decision-makers at Hollywood were predominantly whites. Hollywood might stress for newer reforms against racism on the big screen but that is not the reality at all. To put things into perspective, the Hollywood academy has never revealed information about the diversity of its members involved in the branches of the academy, such as writers, directors, etc.

The response of Hollywood movers and shakers was always akin to a tokenism, a call to push for producing more content involving black writers, producers, and actors.

George Floyd’s death was just the trigger it needed to burst out in the open the pent up anger over the centuries of discrimination, oppression, and systematic injustice meted out to black people. The way black people are portrayed in reel life directly impacts society’s attitude towards them in real life.

People started demanding that Hollywood production companies and studios should involve the people from the community in the decision-making process when the movie plot is based considerably on the members of those communities. They have also demanded that older movies depicting racially insensitive narratives should be taken out of circulation.

Disney, one of the most reputed names in Hollywood, chose to remove the movie “Song of the South” from US distribution, when the criticism for the movie grew, even though it remains available for those who know where to look. They have also announced the plan to revamp the famous Splash Mountain ride at Disneyland and Disney World to include the character of Princess Tiana- Disney’s first African American princess from the movie The Princess and the Frog.

UK TV broadcaster Sky has added a disclaimer to approximately a dozen films stating, “This film has outdated attitudes, language and cultural depictions which may cause offence today."

HBO max recently pulled the iconic film, Gone with the wind because of its controversial depiction of black stereotypes. It returned with a four and a half minute introductory video by black scholar Jaqueline Stewart for a better understanding about racism.

Ever since the resurfacing of the playboy interview of John Wayne, students and alumni at USC have been protesting against Wayne’s exhibit at the campus. However, USC has finally decided to remove the exhibit.

All these reforms are a direct result of the audience being more and more aware of racism and prejudice. However, it is Hollywood’s turn to step up and push for bigger reforms. While it would be a challenging and bold endeavor, Hollywood’s global influence makes it imperative for the industry to undergo much-needed reforms.

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October 23, 2020 3:57 PM

Male gaze, their female guardians and sports-wear

In Helen Cixous’ essay, ‘The Laugh of Medusa’, she urges women to redefine what their body means to them, not just physically but also socially, emotionally and politically. This could happen by re-writing about your body in a way you deem  fit, the expression you identify with and separating it from how your body has been written about by men. The expression could be how you view your body separate from the patriarchal lense.

It is no secret that a woman’s body is subject to critique. While clothing for men is just a tool to cover themselves as per the surrounding environment, clothing for women isa social and political narrative that dictates their life or as we affectionately call it ‘culturally appropriate’.

The clothing style could vary. It could be a woman covered head to toe in a Burqa, it could be a woman who decides to wear sports-wear in a park or it could be jeans and a top. Everything is critically evaluated by men and by women who work towards protecting the male gaze.

The male gaze is a heterosexual way of looking at female bodies that sexualises these bodies into an object. It is a gaze that runs on the self-affirmative notion that the bodies of women, and what they do with it, is directly linked to how they  appear in front of a man.

In a recent incident in Bangalore, India, popular Indian actress Samyuktha Hegde was abused and threatened by senior political leader of the congress party, Kavitha Reddy,  for wearing sports-wear, in Bangalore’s Agara Lake park. She was exercising with her friend.

Kavitha Reddy initially claimed she was in indecent attire and went onto morally police and then later abused the actress and her friend.  A supposedly progressive political leader gets uncomfortable by what women are wearing. It breaks into an argument and a fight where the politician is supported by five to six men. Later on, the police appear to be appeasing the politician instead of the women who were harassed. Although she did apologise, her apology came after her video went viral, and as a protection for her own political reputation.

To look at Samyuktha Hegde’s clothing as a threat is to view her clothing as an act of obscenity therefore bullying her identity and sense of agency and reducing her to sexual object, who, by putting her in public, apparently gives the men present a right to look at her? Nevermind that she was there to workout like everyone else, her actions were confused as to how men look at her. In the video posted by the actress, the politician is surrounded by men who are championing her on. The politician choses to side with the patriarchal figures in shaming these women. Asking to protect from the male gaze is a far stretch but punishing women for the male gaze is where we should draw a line.

What roles does Kavitha Reddy play? She is the guardian of the male gaze. We find her in our mothers, in our grandmothers, in aunties and sometimes our friends. She understands a woman’s body as an object that is there to be looked at by men. She gets angry at women for wearing certain kinds of clothing but she is not angry at men for looking. The agency in this case always belongs to men.

When Cixous asks women to re-define their identity, she urges us to strangle the moral police that comes alive in such instances. It is the moral police that shames women for wearing clothes that don’t flatter their bodies or clothes that do flatter them. She urges us to reflect upon the source of such vigilance. Do we shame other women because we believe in what we are saying or our identity is partially (or  wholly) shaped by the male gaze?

Whether we chose to wear a burqa, or a dress, or variations of the new type clothing produced everyday, the crux of the matter is that it should not worry anyone apart from the one wearing it. The identity of a woman, sexual or otherwise, has to be redefined to be separated from the men and their gaze. We have to draw a line otherwise people in power will continue to abuse their power and preserve patriarchy and male gaze.

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