Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Idris Elba, Mickey Rourke, and how race matters in casting

The Thor movie trailer has come out and, predictably, some fans are protesting that Idris Elba, who is black, shouldn't have been cast as a Norse god, all of whom are white. Elba as Heimdall is pictured below:

Thankfully, most responses have been supportive of the Elba casting. That said, a lot of them still miss the point of casting him. Take this summary of the issue by Monika Bartyzel at Moviefone:

At some point we all have to realize that changing the skin color of a fictional character is not an affront to anyone, and should be seen no differently than a different hairstyle, a modernized wardrobe or any of the other changes that fall on fictional figures...

Unfortunately, it's precisely this kind of fallacious "color-blind" theorizing that allows critics of the casting-decision to turn around and accuse the author of the Moviefone critique of being a hypocrite:

Could Bartyzel be any more of a hypocrite? She thinks it’s wrong to put whites in the roles of non-whites [she criticized a decision to cast Mickey Rourke as Genghis Khan in another film] but more than acceptable to put non-whites in the roles of whites. In fact she says it’s “racist” to object to putting non-whites in the roles of whites.

Which is a fair enough response - in spite of the fact that most of the arguments on the site are racist gibberish - given how terribly Bartyzel articulated the reasons for opposing the Rourke casting but supporting the Elba decision.

But Bartyzel is ultimately right, even if she goes about explaining it the wrong way. What it actually comes down to isn't color-blindness - as if that's possible or even desirable - but representation and power. We should support decisions like casting Michael Clarke Duncan as the Kingpin or Elba as Heimdall because a) actors of color are under-represented in Hollywood film and TV, and b) the source texts of comic book adaptations are often 50 or more years old, and so were made for all-white audiences and, predictably, feature all-white casts. (And, often, these are subtly racist texts that were produced for an explicitly racist audience. Reproducing those texts exactly, just for the sake of creating a faithful adaptation, means reproducing those racist politics or representation, too. Fidelity for its own sake is often a bad idea.)

Hollywood is full of these kinds of adaptations and full of films populated by exclusively or almost exclusively white casts. What Hollywood is not full of - aside from the films created by Tyler Perry and a few other films marketed specifically for black-audiences (films that often still manage to find space for white actors, mind you) - are meaningful roles for non-white actors.

I'll simplify it, even, and say that representation is power. It's empowering to see images of heroes that look like you, that you can imagine to be you, and disempowering to feel that you either can't identify with them or actively disidentify with the people who look most like you. There are plenty of white male superheroes, wizards, demigods, and so forth, and comparatively few black men playing similar roles - virtually none once you remove any that have been played by Will Smith.

Idris Elba isn't stealing from a scarce supply of white male fantasy roles, but he is contributing to a scarce list of black male fantasy characters. And that's valuable and interesting in a way that, say, Sam Worthington as Heimdall would not be.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Stealing a page from Pitchfork's book

If someone were to pay me to write a review of the Black Eyed Peas' "The Time (Dirty Bit)", it would probably go a little something like this:

Monday, December 13, 2010

Academic scandal and "political agendas": the controversy at U Toronto's SESE

My partner, Victoria, is a PhD candidate in the department of Sociology and Equity Studies in Education (SESE) at the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. (It's a mouthful, yes.) Recently, it's gotten a lot of press here in Canada, most of it very angry.

The gist of it is this: a Master's student - Jenny Peto - wrote a thesis (one of those 150 or so page long essays that we don't expect anyone outside of our immediate family and committee will ever read) which - very basically - alleges that two "Holocaust education projects" instrumentalize the Holocaust in such a way as to "promote the interests of the Israeli nation-state." And someone blogged about it, which caught the attention of the National Post and Toronto Star, who promptly labeled her a self-loathing Jewish anti-Semite.

I don't want to talk about the thesis itself because I've only read the abstract. (That is, I don't know whether it is good or bad, though a friend of mine who has read it calls it "quite abysmal". And I'm saying that that's beside the point, anyway, for the purposes of what I want to cover here.) Hilariously, it's not clear that many of the commentators who have contributed to the discussion have actually given it a good look, much less read the whole thing themselves. Nor is it clear that they have any clear idea of the expectations that are attached to a Master's thesis - the demands for more interviews, research, etc. would turn this into the sort of massive, years-long project that no supervisor would approve and no MA student could complete.

The newest addition to this ongoing saga is a list of SESE's MA theses* that have been compiled by Werner Cohn, an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia. The list has been reprinted in the National Post, where Cohn claims that they are "so marred by political jargon and political preconceptions that they should never have been accepted." The theses, it seems, are "politicized" (whatever that means - what, in the study of sociology and equity, isn't politicized?), claims Cohn, and "consist of hate propaganda, possibly in violation of the Criminal Code of Canada."

(It behooves me, here, to point out Cohn's own possible biases and investment in the subject matter. If his personal website - which includes a lot of anti-Chomsky stuff, writings on Zionism, and writings on "Jews who hate Israel" - is any indication, he's probably one of the people who is politically implicated by Peto's thesis. This is an auspicious a key detail and its absence from his text in the National Post article is auspicious.)

Cohn claims that the abstracts he lists (because he didn't read 16 of the 18 theses - like i said, no one does) are "propound political agendas rather than detached scholarship" and "the politics of all eighteen are of one sort and one sort only: radical leftism", and that they "are so politicized that – again on a prima facie basis – I would not accept them as scholarly contributions". (To his credit, I suppose, he admits that it's possible - if unlikely - that he would change his mind if he actually read the things.)

Having read the list myself, I have a few observations to share, too:

If, on the basis of the abstract alone, this stuff constitutes "political agendas" and "radical leftism", then Cohn has either never read anything in the fields of equity and identity politics or else thinks that the fields themselves are not worthy of his attention. Some of the abstracts are pretty innocuous, except for the appearance of terms like "anti-racist", "Canadian colonialism", and the "white" Canadian nation-state. And regardless, this is not somehow a unique cross-section - this is typical of the work being done right now in sociology, race, and/or gender studies. My sense is that his problem is with the discipline, from which he appears to be professionally and philosophically detached. (And not "detached" in the somewhat problematic sense that one can ever be politically detached from necessarily politicized work, but "detached" in the sense of "he just doesn't know.") The National Post might as well have asked a mathematician to weigh-in.

Cohn uses the term "Neo-Marxist" dismissively on another blog, and I think it's a telling insult. Based on that article and the one in the globe - where he hides his own politics under the guise of "objectivity in scholarship" and "scholarly merit" (which he doesn't define - presumably, it is obvious to people like himself, who are ostensibly, if disingenuously, without politics) - my guess is that what Cohn is actually lamenting is his own obsolescence. At the risk of sounding too dismissive myself, Cohn's first published article is now 60 years old - presumably, he is made anxious by MA theses employing post-colonial and anti-racist frameworks that critique and reject what was once canon. That canon being the pro-Western, pro-white, masculinist, heterosexist sociological corpus that Cohn was trained with and - again, presumably - has contributed to. It doesn't matter what they were actually, specifically saying - he was probably ready to dismiss them simply for committing this sin.

Cohn also criticizes OISE for the "political uniformity" of its theses, adding that "no thesis that, for instance, urged a conservative viewpoint, or a Christian one, or, Heaven forbid, Zionism". But this is a red herring if I've ever seen one - those "viewpoints" aren't there simply because they're not up to the task. Imagine a classically liberal - ie. conservative, in popular parlance - analysis of gendered microinequities in the workplace. Could it even admit the possibility? How would it go about collecting data in any meaningful way? What kind of horribly reductive and limited vocabulary would it be forced to draw on? Could it even account for the possibility of systemic discrimination? Just what the hell would that look like? (You might counter with the suggestion that a conservative thesis would challenge the whole idea of microinequities. In which case, frankly, it shows its uselessness that much faster.)

[* Victoria's MA thesis isn't among them, though the temporal scope of his selections aren't clear, and so it's possible that she just fell outside his time-frame.]

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The NBA, referreeing, and segue into Malcolm Gladwell

I don't remember hearing about this study, but apparently in 2007 some researchers found subtle racial-bias in the calls that NBA referees made from 1993-2003. And then, after being viciously attacked by the NBA for using faulty methodology, they used the data that the NBA supplied to refute their claims in order to confirm their findings. Cool stuff, and there's an article about the whole back story on ESPN.

The article references Malcolm Gladwell's Blink a lot, crediting him for popularizing the idea of implicit racism. (which, I'm guessing, was either derived from or unknowingly riffing on the idea of microinequity) I read the whole book, and I kinda hated it. There was no thesis, to speak of - he was writing about the power of implicit bias in the quick decisions that we make all of the time. Sometimes our bias is helpful, sometimes it isn't; sometimes we can retrain ourselves to affect it, sometimes we can't. If there's any central point, it's merely that these near-instantaneous, subconsciously-motivated decisions happen. And if one of my students had written this, I would have given them a poor mark for writing a 'grocery list' essay consisting of a bunch of vaguely related items that combine to make no larger point.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Adventures in TAing, case 9 (in a ? case series)

The exact process varies - sometimes I steal from Chuck Klosterman and use his "23 Questions I Ask Everybody I Meet In Order To Decide If I Can Really Love Them" - but I've always started the school year with introductions and some sort of ice-breaker question for my students. But I decided to be lazy this year (probably, in part, because this was the first time in 3 years that I had a one-hour tutorial rather than a two-hour one) and just do name and major.

Name. Major. That's it.

And in spite of this simple request, I probably got the most entertaining, aggressive, and bizarre introduction ever. (And I'm posting it here, now, only because he dropped the class.)

I'm _______ and I'm majoring in Business. And I want to get an A+ on the group presentation, because I got an F on one last year and my final mark in the class was a C+. But everything else was an A+ so they changed it to an A because I petitioned it. Oh, and my group hated me because I'm gay.

Added later: The student showed up once more and then dropped the class.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Two totally, completely, absolutely unrelated stories


This story about the (ex-)casting director of the Hobbit's already a couple days old, but I wanted to respond to one part of what's been the popular response. It comes in the headline on Salon, actually:

A woman says she was denied a job as an extra for not being light-skinned -- was it wrong or just authentic?

Clearly, "authentic" is being deployed problematically, here. First, this is a fictional myth, and so the standard of authenticity is highly interpretive. But more importantly, "authentic" shouldn't be used to cover-up or ignore the racist politics of the source text. And, headline aside, Salon gets this part right:

The kerfuffle over "The Hobbit's" tactless casting call -- with its obvious and utterly unnecessary skin tone limiting of would-be applicants -- serves an uncomfortable reminder of the not-so diverse realm of the Tolkienverse. [...] As my colleague Laura Miller says, 'There's a criticism that there's a crypto racial thing in the darker-skinned orcs and the southern men.'

My only disagreement would be with the "crypto" part. Really? "Crypto" makes me think that it's subtle and/or unintentional. And I don't think it's either.


This story, which is about the racialized casting of Victoria Secret models, is a bit older but hasn't, as far as I can tell, gotten as much play.

The Victoria Secret Fashion Show, which aired last night on CBS, opened with a complete line up of light skinned models.While dark skinned models were sprinkled throughout the show, they seemed to have lined them up so they could all be part of the “Wild Things” segment of the show [...] Yes, wild things… that included tribal dancers and all the models of color in the show.

I'm not aware of CBS or Victoria Secret's response to the complaint that dark-skinned models were uniformly exoticized - and that the white models were uniformly not - but I wouldn't be surprised if the same defense of "authenticity" were made.