Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Tucson Schools: Shootout at the Ideology Corral

The Tucson Unified School District is in the news because it has shut down the district's Mexican American Studies program.  The state school superintendent had threatened to withdraw millions of dollars in funding because the program allegedly violates an Arizona state law passed in 2010.  House Bill 2281 made illegal school programs that:

1. Promote the overthrow of the United States government.
2. Promote resentment toward a race or class of people.
3. Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.
4. Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.

One of the books removed from classrooms.
An audit ordered by the state superintendent, John Huppenthal, found the program was not violating the law, but he came after it anyway.  To some people his actions seem racist in motivation.  To some his actions smack of a vendetta against the program.  And some are upset with books being removed from the classrooms, boxed up and forbidden to be read.  Many people in Tucson and from across the nation have protested the shutdown, and my friend Debbie Reese has been sharing developments and perspectives on her blog

Many of the program's teachers and some of the authors whose works have been removed from the classes have written about these events.  Their words are more insightful than anything I can share.  However, I did want to write something about my reaction when I first read the Arizona state law in question.

The law prohibits school programs that "Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals."  The curious concept here is "the treatment of pupils as individuals."

One could argue that this is hard for schools to do, since, by design, they are intended to indoctrinate students, to encourage them to think alike in key matters.  A school is something Louis Althusser called an Ideological State Apparatus.  That is, a school  is a state institution designed to endow students with state-approved ideology.  The school is not interested in the students as individuals; it is interested in them as citizens, and being a citizen means having some kind of solidarity (actually, many solidarities, conscious and unconscious).

I tried to imagine teaching a variety of subjects -- history, sociology, civics, writing, etc. -- that somehow ignored solidarities of all kinds.  I found it just about impossible.  We are born into them.  We are members of them before we ever start choosing them.  For instance, most Americans carry their father's last name.  Why?  In part because the United States is a patriarchal society, and that is a kind of solidarity.  Solidarity is formed, in part, by sharing an ideology.

Using this example of the child taking the father's name, Althusser wrote: "Before its birth, the child is therefore always-already a subject, appointed as a subject in and by the specific familial ideological configuration in which it is 'expected' once it has been conceived."  For Althusser the "subject" is a person who has been, in a sense, constructed from the various ideologies in which he/she is born and raised.  There is no choice in this manner; all humans are subjects because they are born into social groups (including their families) with systems of beliefs and behaviors.  Such a system is an ideology.

Imagine trying to teach the students in Tucson's school as individuals rather than as Americans (ironically,  some of them are NOT American citizens).  I doubt Huppenthal would agree to that.  Imagine educating American students as individuals rather than as future participants in a capitalist economy.  That would upset a lot of people, including those guys running for the Republican presidential nomination.

I can see advocating some kind of solidarity other than an ethnic one.  That could be a solidarity based on nationality or economic class or something arbitrary (Team Jacob vs. Team Edward, perhaps).  However, I see the opposition of "ethnic solidarity" against "individual" as suggesting an ideological education vs. a non-ideological education.  I don't know that such a thing is possible.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

"Red Tails" and the Black Man's Burden

"The White Man's Burden" is the title of a poem by Rudyard Kipling that was published in 1899.  In it Kipling describes the duty of white Europeans to lift up the native people of other continents from their supposedly "savage" existences -- as "half devil and half child."

Even if the poem is interpreted as calling upon the powerful nations to use their power wisely and for the benefit of others, rather than justifying imperialism, its racism and condescension are inescapable.

A review of the new film Red Tails on Yahoo! made me think of another burden, this one belonging to the "Black Man."  But it is a burden shared by other minorities in the United States.  In a review titled "The laudable 'Red Tails' misses its target," Jake Coyle complains that the film about a unit of African American pilots during World War II does not adequately address the racial prejudices the actual pilots had to overcome in the 1940s.

Coyle writes that George Lucas, the film's producer, is seeking to prove that there is a wide audience for a film with an all-black cast.  He writes: "That's a laudable goal, but 'Red Tails' reduces a historical story of deep cultural significance to merely a flyboy flick."

But why can't Lucas make a film with black lead actors that is "merely a flyboy flick"?

Coyle continues: "Instead of creating something authentic and new, 'Red Tails' superimposes the tale of the black World War II pilots on a dated, white genre of 1940s patriotic propaganda. 'Red Tails' is blatantly old-fashioned, just with a change in color."

Again, why not?

There have been plenty of films that address the problems of racism in the United States.  Even this particular historical situation has been addressed by HBO's The Tuskegee Airmen.  But must EVERY film with a primarily black cast be a "black movie"?

Must every story by or about African Americans bear the burden of America's history of racism and oppression?  Is that the Black Man's Burden, to always be reminding white folks about their sins or the sins of their ancestors?  Do not get me wrong: there is real value in telling stories that keep our sins in plain sight.  But having that be the only story is really limiting.  There are so many more stories to tell than just that one.

This is a cultural dynamic that I have blogged about before.  In "Dances with High-Heeled Sneakers" I wrote about a review of an exhibition in New York City by American Indian artists.  That reviewer seemed unable to understand or unwilling to accept American Indian artists who were telling a story other than the one he was familiar with: the tragic story of a people overrun by the United States and working desperately to keep the old ways alive.  The artists who emphasized humor and modernity seemed to confuse the reviewer; they refused to stay within the the confining role of Tragic Indian.

History is heavy, and everyone needs to take a break at some point from carrying its weight.

In Coyle's comments we also can see an example of something called markedness.  When we speak of binaries, one is marked and one is unmarked, and the unmarked is considered the broader or more powerful or significant of the two.  This term originally comes out linguistic studies, but it is applied to cultural studies, too.

There are movies and there are black movies.  The first term is very broad and could include almost any genre.  It is the unmarked term, unmarked since it has no adjective distinguishing it from the other term.  I imagine it would be a term understood to mean movies made with a mostly white cast and primarily for a white audience, which is still the largest movie-going audience in the United States, so it makes sense that Hollywood tries to appeal to that large pool of customers.   But no one calls them "white movies."  Movies with white lead actors are just movies.  Or if they are marked, it is by their genre category: action, romcom, drama, etc.   It is understood that the audiences for these films will be of all races.

That leads Coyle to say the Red Tails misses its mark because it is "merely a flyboy flick."  We have had those before.  In fact, there is one called Flyboys, and its cast is predominantly white.  Its theme, not the race of its cast, controlled the way it was discussed and presented.  Coyle seems to have trouble understanding Red Tails because it looks and feels and sounds like a flyboy flick -- but it has a black cast, and so therefore it must be a black movie.

And we know what black movies are.  They are either earnest history lessons or films made by Tyler Perry.  A cast of primarily African American actors.  A story arising from experiences in African American communities and characterized by expressions (gestures, words, intonations, etc.) understood to be "black."  And until recently, it was understood that such films appealed to a primarily black audience, and until Perry's character Madea got popular, "black films" could be expected to gross about $30-40 million because of that small audience.  But Madea Goes to Jail grossed about $90 million. 

An odd thing about the Yahoo! review is that the headline suggests the film misses its target by not telling the history of the Tuskegee Airmen, but then the review states Lucas's target was to make a film with a black cast that appealed to a broad audience. (Hasn't Perry answered that question?).  So, since historical accuracy was not the target, how can Lucas be accused of missing it?

It remains to be seen whether he does hit his target.  The film's ticket sales will determine that.  The yardstick Lucas seems to want the film measured by is not history or earnestness, but entertainment.  That is, is it a good film rather than a good history lesson?  (Coyle does address that in his review.)

I have not seen it.  But if Lucas was in control, I am not holding my breath.  I have yet to forgive him for Stars Wars I, II, and III.  See "The Badness of King George" for my thoughts on that.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Exhaustion of Home Makeover Porn

So, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition is dead, but how long will we live with its influence?

At the moment, I am thinking of how that show's "money shot" has migrated into other shows.

You know the shot -- the moment in which the once-struggling family has revealed to them to their monstrosity of a home filled with every appliance and gadget the show can wring out of product-placement hungry companies.  A home that the receiving family at times cannot maintain and must sell once the tools, trucks, and klieg lights are gone.

The show's climax is when the curtain is dropped and the family members scream, jump, or gasp silently in amazement at their new home, which has been so radically altered from its original state, if not outright demolished and replaced.  The parents frequently cry in amazement and, we imagine, gratitude, but the teenagers and children scream and run about in orgasmic seizures of materialistic lust.

Jenna Jameson, porn queen
Extreme Makeover: Home Edition was to home decorating what Jenna Jameson was to gentle romance.

I thought about this while watching a very modestly scaled makeover show, George to the Rescue.  In the episode I happened to see, the host had remodeled someone's garage so that it was useful as storage and office space for the small non-profit operation she operated from her home.  The whole affair was tasteful and completely within the means of the recipient to maintain.  (You can watch it here.)

When the new garage is revealed to the former teacher, she stands there silent, mouth open, gasping.  It was not nearly as over the top as those on other makeover shows.  While her reaction could have been entirely spontaneous and authentic, I couldn't help wondering what was going through her head.  On what past experiences was she drawing to shape her expression?  Or, at some level, was she imitating the revelation moments -- the money shots -- from other television shows, such as Extreme Makeover?

She knew a big reaction was expected of her.  She didn't want to disappoint the nice people who were doing this wonderful thing for her.  And, perhaps importantly, she knew she was on camera.  These "big surprise" moments are common enough now on Extreme Makeover and other shows that she would have known how to react.  Was it an example of life imitating art?

Queen for a Day on NBC
I cannot pretend that Extreme Makeover invented this television moment.  I grew up seeing something similar on Let's Make a Deal and The Price is Right, when contestants realized they had won a car or a European vacation.  We could even go back to This is Your Life or Queen for a Day for similar moments of surprise and delight captured on camera.  But few shows became as manipulative and cloying about that big moment as did Extreme Makeover.  Few shows made it as artificial and grandiose.  And so it is not randomly that I compare the aesthetics of Extreme Makeover to those of the video porn industry, with its unrealistic extremes of expression and material excess -- I'm thinking of body shapes and surgical enhancements.

In one sense, we can see Extreme Makeover and the video porn industry as examples of hyper-reality, which I have written about before (in relation to Heidi Montag).

Aubrey Plaza as April Ludgate
But now that Extreme Makeover has exhausted itself and us with its manufactured intensity, I am waiting for a new breed of makeover shows.  How about a makeover for the ironic hipsters?  I would love to see one last episode of Extreme Makeover.  It would be a visit to Pawnee, Indiana, and it would feature April Ludgate from Parks & Recreation.  Her new home, in all of its excessive flourishes, would be revealed, and she would stare with those eyes of hers, not jumping, not gasping, perhaps only sipping from a Starbucks cup.  "It's OK. I guess."