Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2008, Part Ten: Andrea Hairston

Andrea Hairston:

What a year!

Perhaps my favorite entertainment event was watching President-elect Obama, Michelle Obama, and their two young girls accept the mantle as America’s “First Family” in Chicago’s Grant Park on November 4. Waving at the cheering crowds, they signaled a sea change in the American political landscape. Change is illusive. The story we make of ourselves is full of illusions and delusions, full of mythic demons, busted hopes, and broken promises. The American Dream that anybody can become anything with talent and sweat is a bald face lie. (I know a poor Arab Lesbian wasn’t running for President, but I think I can say that her time has not yet come!) Still for a few moments, I felt the lies crack and a dream possibility slip through. President–elect Obama may be more centrist than I would like, and we are certainly in for a glorious and difficult adventure reinventing the United States, but the audacious image of the Obamas as the leaders of the charge to a different tomorrow is inspiring.

Aside from the reality TV of the presidential campaign, a hard act to follow, I enjoyed Dark Knight for its grand visions and virtuoso acting and for its small moments too. My favorite example of a minor character triumph in the film is: Chaos Junkie/Terrorist Joker rigs two boats to explode at midnight (or some nefarious deadline). However, he gives folks on each boat a detonator and says if they blow the other boat up first, they can save themselves. Not surprisingly, people start thinking about pressing the button, wiping out the other boat, and saving themselves. One boat has convict passengers. A large black man in bright orange evil, an obvious gangsta who has previously played in high-action violent sprees, offers to do what a white guard can’t. White guy gapes at him, so relieved that this evil Brother will do the nasty, namely blow another boatload of humans away to save himself, his boat. Guard is relieved that he doesn’t have to sacrifice his humanity to save his skin. Let a thug do that! He hands the detonator over. Gangsta black man tosses the wicked device into the water and goes off to meditate/pray, saying, “this is what you should have done a long time ago.” He refuses the Joker’s premise, refuses to play in the Joker’s terror narrative. Gangsta feels connected to the other boat suffering across the water and knows that sacrificing them won’t save him. Indeed he celebrates their shared humanity in the face of brutal terror.

Dark Knight is full of such intriguing moments and along with Wall-E and Iron Man keeps you thinking and entertained simultaneously.

Twilight wasn’t as bad as I expected it to be. I almost didn’t go see it, but I reasoned that if I can stand adolescent male fantasy, I should certainly be able to sit through adolescent female fantasy. Twilight had enough teenage angst to keep me engaged. Kudos to Catherine Hardwicke, a blockbuster director now. Twilight, the film, and the Stephanie Meyer series of novels that it is based on called to the academic in me. I want to look at Bella and Buffy and Vampire lust/love. Meyer’s books are now on my to-read list.

Twilight is supposedly what teenage girls want—look how popular it is! Popular forms tell us a lot about our collective desires and fears. I study Blackface Minstrelsy which was wildly popular for almost a hundred years and still has profound influence on musical and storytelling forms today. (See among many, Secret Life of Bees and Australia for recent incarnations.) Interestingly Blackface Minstrelsy was initially a “young (white) man’s form.” Minstrelsy’s popularity was aided by mass marketing and commodification. It was normalized and enjoyed uncritically. Minstrelsy also displaced other stories, other narratives—Native Americans, African Americans among others lost a public space for their world views. Minstrelsy and its prodigy are full of helpless young white women who define themselves through relations with violent, often bestial men. These men have terrifying power, but “love” these helpless young white women and use their terrifying power to save and protect them from a dangerous and frightening world.

Nicole Kidman’s character in Australia with her frilly underwear and ridiculous hats is the quintessential white woman ditz stumbling through the Outback, tripping over colonialism. Nicole is saved by a good, hunky colonial, played by Hugh Jackman, whose friends and lovers up to meeting Nicole have all been “black” Aboriginals. Jackman is viewed by the nasty white colonials as a practically black, uncivilized wild man (Tarzan?). Nicole tames him with her…frail white woman helplessness? After resisting her charms, Jackman sets aside his beastliness to make a family with her! Another fantasy romance, not unlike Twilight, although Hardwicke does a better job directing her material, never letting the story get out of control. However, while I am entertained by Twilight tapping into collective desire, I’m skeptical about what has been fashioned from that desire. There are myriad story possibilities to touch/tap young women’s desire and angst—I am curious to explore what Twilight tells about ourselves.

Two wonderful documentaries that I saw this year from the Media Education Foundation which explore the commodification of youthful desire in popular culture are: Sut Jhally’s Dream Worlds 3--Desire, Sex & Power in Music Video and Byron Hurt’s Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats & Rhymes, an examination of manhood, sexism, and homophobia in hip-hop culture.

Young Adult Fiction dazzled me this year. My favorites are: Gifts, Voices, and Powers by Ursula LeGuin, Shadow Speaker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, and Little Brother by Cory Doctorow. These books offer delicious writing and challenging stories—great reads! LeGuin, Okorafor-Mbachu, and Doctorow do not flinch from the horror and beauty of the societies we have created. The authors all focus on the powers we wield as agents of change even in deeply oppressive circumstances. They are bold, audacious books, offering a marvelous view of young people engaged in the glorious and difficult adventure of reinventing the world.

A playwright and professor of theatre at Smith College, Andrea has written, directed, and performed in many plays. She is also a novelist. In 2005 Aqueduct published her novel
Mindscape, which was nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award and named to the James Tiptree Award Honor List.

1 comment:

Josh said...

"Gangsta black man" is played by the inimitable Tiny Lister.