Monday, January 3, 2011

Easy A(frican American storyline/joke)



So, Joan and I sat down last night to watch a movie on DirectTV. It was a last ditch effort to be leisurely before we both have to go back to work this week. It's been pretty splendid these past two weeks since I finished the book edits and grading--movie watching, house cleaning, lots of friend-seeing/talking, more hanging in pajamas with girlfriend, gift shopping for folks and me--still have an incredible expensive shoe fetish--and delicious food making. Note to self: get things done in a timely manner more often and get more boots on sale.

Anyway, we sat down last night to watch Easy A, the Sony Pictures release about a white teenage girl who  makes up a story about having sex for the first time to her friend and then ends up using similar said stories to "help" guys in her school seem cool. She pays the "ultimate" price in this almost Disney movie by having her good, virginal name and reputation smeared for the next couple of weeks. It had a pretty good cast of folks that I like, namely Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci (I don't know this Emma Stone person, and only know Penn Badgely--what a made up name--from my one episode of Gossip Girl a few years ago). Overall, I laughed quite a few times at the main character, Olive's, sense of humor, especially the 1980s movie references. And, I was struck by two things: 1) Olive's adopted Black younger brother who has maybe ten lines and is mostly shown in the kitchen, and 2) references to Huck Finn and his running away with a "big hunk of a Black man," Jim. Those two things came out of nowhere (there was also a moment when Olive imitated a "Mexican" accent by saying holmes and ese). Now, it's not that I'm surprised that racism shows up in films entirely about white people, or that it's inserted into my nightly television watching--Joan is Native American, so there is at least a once a week random viewing where someone is wearing a full headress or says "off the res." I get it, and I shouldn't be surprised, but I was. I still haven't wrapped my head around it because the characters felt so disparate and random, but right now, I can only point to some lazy writing about white racism/fascination with Blackness. I mean, really, you're just going to insert a Black, younger brother and pretend that's it no big deal in Ojai, CA where the population of African Americans is less than 1%? And then, you're going to make the already told joke about a sexual relationship between Huck and Jim, updating the story with the one gay male character running off with an older, Black man? (No joke, the end of the movie montage includes the two of them shirtless on a bed watching Huck Finn on TV, "don't worry Huck, I like to steer" says Jim on the television and then the two roll over). *blood boil*

This is something I haven't yet mastered when trying to talk to students about racism and how it works in this moment. But, this muddled white boy humor (yeah, this was written by a guy) that has run amok in the past few years makes it seem like racism is not racism and, really, "kinda cool." Like, white people are just quirky, harmless, clueless folks when it comes to race. Hello Judd Apatow and Vince Vaughn. Why not make the ex-girlfriend in the movie South Asian, and the male prostitute dressed in drag, Black? What's the big deal? And, it continues to feel like I've been slapped in the face when I watch these movies. And I like to watch movies, mindless comedies to be exact. But, not only does Hollywood have to include a gay character in just about every film (which Stanely Tucci often plays, a la Devil Wears Prada and Burlesque), but now, just slip in some fantasies about race relations and obsessions about Black male sexuality and you've got a hit film. I mean, Madonna did it. Sandra Bullock did it. It's not a big deal for a white family to adopt a Black child, right? Not only does this minimize the reality of the numbers of Black youth in foster care who never get adopted, but makes it seem like transracial adoption and the raising of Black children is easy peasy. Just stick them in a "good (middle class and white)" environment and voila! racism solved. Make the requisite reference to Black male sexual prowess and voila! kill two birds with one stone, Black and gay.

OK, so maybe I'm making too much of the five minutes that Black characters were shown in this film and relying too much on Hollywood to really address racism and I should have prefaced this by saying that another Sony Picture Classics, Quinceneara was on LOGO this week...but, there is too much overlap between these kinds of jokes and discussions of "post-racial" in politics, education, and immigration. The Dream Act (which wasn't without problems) did not pass, but states are gearing up to push their SB 1070-like laws. And young,  Black men who have sex with men continue to be the highest number of new HIV cases. These race relations and the racist approach that popular discourse takes to overshadow and belittle them makes cozy movie watching nights in, more and more difficult.

8 comments:

Sara Susanna Moore said...

I just had to say a "hello, I hear you" on this post. I just saw Easy A and was repulsed by its race politics. I typed into Google "Easy A" + "race politics" and found your blog post. In one way I feel like this is a political throwback to a more racist time, but really, I think it's a manifestation of plain old garden variety white racism, not from a previous time of ignorance, but from today's persistent ignorance. They could have done so much with the few African American characters, added interesting dimensions about belonging/outsiderness/etc., but instead the adopted little brother, the white gay character's lover, and the woman in the church sanctuary were all silent or nearly silent background fixtures. This movie was an embarrassment, politically speaking. - Sara (also an SF Bay Area queer feminist)

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I would just like to address one of your statements concerning Olive's African American little brother. While it's true he didn't have many lines, he also was not a plot-driving character. Olive's father didn't have many more lines than her little brother, nor did Nina. He was also not shown mostly in the kitchen...actually, he was not shown in the kitchen at all. He was shown at the family breakfast table, in the family room watching TV, and getting a piggy-back ride from his dad in the home's entryway. Also, I think your description of the mentality of white families adopting children of other races is very narrowly construed and a bit judgmental. While I know there are some white parents out there who think in the way you describe, the majority of prospective adoptive parents that I've encountered and worked with go to great lengths to acknowledge, emphasize and celebrate the cultural heritage of their adopted children. In no way do they see their adoption of a child of another race as a "Voila" racism cure--and in no way did they expect raising an adopted child of any race to by easy peasy.

Anonymous said...

I have to say that I'm FLOORED by your post. And, normally, wouldn't dignify it with a response. But I wrote this movie and I am NOT a racist. Neither is the director. We are both the parents of black children. And I'm also gay. And YOU need to get a sense of humor. And also, if you're going to label me as a "white guy," go ahead and throw in there that I am gay and the parent of a happy, beautifully well-adjusted child of color. Voila.

queerblackfeminist said...

Hi "anonymous" writer of Easy A. Thanks so much for reading my post and taking the time to respond! I'm more than happy to get a sense of humor--as I indicated, I laughed out loud at many parts of your movie and found Olive a bit endearing. But, you'll also have to learn how to take criticism and critique, no? Take it personal if you will, but this post was not just about your movie, but also about the ways that our culture, our society, the way we live and interact--LGBTQ and straight--with one another across race is impacted by racism. And, I don't think that having children of color, who I'm sure are lovely, as well as your family, exempts you from being a white (and yes, gay) male who benefits from the privileges that go along with that embodiment--because of the structure of racism. If you'd like to continue this conversation about racism, I'm happy to engage, but it would have to be an engagement and acknowledgement of the society that we live in, the film industry, and where your film is located. peace.

Rhanwyn Drake said...

Thank you so much for this article. I'm endlessly boggled by the reception to this movie, especially by young feminists, when it's so incredibly problematic. I've written a 'response' to it for a publication in december and wanted to include the issues with race that you've outlines here. I live in Australia, where the colonial, paternalistic taking of aboriginal children and placing them in white homes to become 'civilised' is not so long ago at all. So the adopted brother thing made my skin crawl. And the Huck Finn references were so obviously both racist and problematically echoing past opinions of gay sex = pedophilia. As I am not a PoC I was worried that perhaps I didn't have the perspective to include those thoughts, so the fact that it struck you the same way is telling. As is the arguments you're receiving from people about it. I mean, if I can see it's there other white folks should be able to surely?
Anyway I wanted to send thanks and some positive reinforcement from my side of the globe.
- Rhanwyn Drake

Anonymous said...

The goal of every film is not to focus on racial politics. I don't understand the need to view everything through the lens of race relations. In this particular film, yes, it was made and starred mostly white people, which is simply a demographic reality in locations like the one where it is set, but I didn't see any racial messages other than that of the family with an adopted black child where he was treated like any other member of the family while not ignoring his difference. The Huck Finn crap was just a joke, and the portrayal of a happy, gay couple who happened to be interracial was not at all negative. I am white. Maybe I just don't get it. But I think there can be an obsession with identity politics that can obscure universality, and I'm seeing that in this post.

When there is so much overt racism and sexism still prevalent in society, I don't see that there's anything but a counterproductive point in attacking those who attempt to be on your side, especially when most who are allied with you albeit not as single-minded do not see what you, in your intense focus on divisions, see.

queerblackfeminist said...

Anonymous, I'm not sure what you mean by "universality." The very fact that you identify yourself as "white," runs counter to that assertion, no?

Anonymous said...

I just finished watching the film for the first time and had to google 'Easy-A' and 'race' to see if I was the only one who found the film's fleeting treatment of the latter odd. I could have let the little brother storyline pass if the only other references to race had been the crude 'hunk of a black man' huck finn references. I'm so tired of that dehumanising 'big black exotic man' trope and it was particularly jarring for a white character to be perpetuating it when her younger brother is a black male.