Change, Entertainment, Media, Racism, Rebel With A Cause, Shannon Jeanna, Television, Violence

The problematic treatment of People of Color on The Vampire Diaries

Disclaimer: this article contains spoilers of season 6 of The Vampire Diaries.

I know what you must be thinking. Vampires? Is that still a thing? Not really, no… However, one of CW’s hit shows The Vampire Diaries is still going – if not strong since like its 3rd season – pretty smoothly and has even been renewed for a 7th season! Now six years is a long time for a show to last, especially on the CW where most shows are lucky to even see a third season, and are considered incredible if they attain a fourth one. So love it or hate it, TVD seems to have established itself as a pretty solid show for the network, despite some very problematic issues having to do with race and rape culture. Why write about TVD you ask? Because I find interesting how the show, in its treatment of people of color and/or females, unintentionally and pretty accurately reveals the kind of society we live in. Now do not get me wrong, not everything about TVD sucks (no pun intended). In fact it is in my opinion a pretty good show with clever twists and turns and at times pretty awesome cliffhangers. So I must confess that yes: TVD is my guilty pleasure. Most of the characters are pretty compelling – except perhaps for its lead (sorry Elena, I never really liked you) – and as a whole there are a lot of good things that could be said about the show. In fact, I still have hope that Season 7 could be the best season yet if the writers took it upon themselves to address the different issues affecting their characters, storylines and by extension, their viewers. The reason I’ve chosen TVD as an example is because it is one of the shows I am most familiar with but I do find that a lot of these issues aren’t specific to TVD or the fantasy genre and unfortunately often apply to a number of other shows, be it the ever successful Game Of Thrones, classics like Buffy The Vampire Slayer and even comedy shows like Friends or Modern Family. I will not touch on the HUGE issue that is TVD’s promotion of rape culture since it has already been addressed very eloquently and thoroughly by others. I will tackle however the issue of racism, which I often find has a tendency of flying way too often under the radar.

  1. The mayonnaise diaries
The Vampire Diaries cast (season 6)

The Vampire Diaries cast (season 6)

Now my biggest issue with most shows is the very apparent lack of diversity. Taking the example of TVD, its ensemble cast comprises approximately 9 characters (depending on the season): Stefan, Damon, Elena, Caroline, Tyler, Matt, Jeremy, Alaric and Bonnie. Out of these characters, 8 are white (Tyler though played by a latino actor, Michael Trevino, is portrayed as a white character), and only one is black. That character is Bonnie Bennett; played by biracial actress Kat Graham. Doesn’t look good for representation now does it? In all fairness, there have been other recurring characters of color in the show: Pearl and Anna were Asian, Luka and his father, Bonnie’s parents, and Jamie, are all African American, but all of those characters have had very little storyline and were all killed off or sent away at some point. That leaves us with Bonnie. The only person of color in that whole town situated in Virginia (arguably a very racially diverse state in real life). Therefore, Bonnie bears the burden of representation not only for black viewers but for all minorities (Asian, latino, etc. alike), while white people who watch the show have at least NINE DIFFERENT CHARACTERS to represent them, all having very different personalities and aspirations! Mind you, I haven’t even counted the recurring white characters like Katherine, Jenna, Sheriff Forbes, Enzo, etc. !

  1. Tokenism and asexuality
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Bonnie and Jeremy

We could cut the show some slack and think to ourselves, “well, even if there is very little diversity, maybe Bonnie at least gets some good storylines!” WRONG! Bonnie Bennett is probably one of the most poorly treated characters in TV history. She is the ultimate token black girl/magical negro. She is always put in a position of servitude and is ultimately a walking-talking plot device. If you watch seasons 1 through 5, Bonnie gets very little screen time, and the little she does get is only to cast spells, not because it is what she wants to do, but because she is asked, or mostly ordered or threatened into by her white friends and enemies. Bonnie is always the loophole: when the plot requires it, she is brought out of the shadows, and just as soon, shoved right back in. No questions asked. She has had no character development whatsoever, and in a show that lives and thrives based on its “ships”, Bonnie has only really ever been involved with one guy, that is Jeremy, her best friend’s human little brother. Now there is absolutely nothing wrong with that but, when the white girls get to exclusively date guys that score high on the show’s Richter scale of hotness, aka older dangerous, unpredictable, (over)protective vampire/werewolf/hybrid guys, that’s when it gets unfair. Please let me emphasize that by no means am I saying that the criteria mentioned here is what anyone should look for in a mate, rather I am just discussing these “qualities” within the context of the show which keeps romanticizing them and painting such men as desirable. Love or hate younger predictable human Jeremy, even that relationship is made to be mind-numbingly boring and stale because all Bonnie and Jeremy are ever allowed to talk about is Elena, the lead white girl, in order to advance the plot. So Bonnie’s love life isn’t even about her, but is rather a means to an end, robbing her once again of all agency in her own narrative. On the other hand, Elena and Caroline – the two white girls – have hot guys fighting over them and worshiping the ground they walk on.

Stefan and Damon spend the major part of the series fighting over Elena's affections

Stefan and Damon spend the major part of the series fighting over Elena’s affections

Elena, who dated Matt, has been the center of a never ending love triangle involving Stefan and Damon the two hottest vampires in town, and has had some romantic vibes going on with Elijah, an original vampire. She has had the pleasure of being at the receiving end of countless romantic speeches and gestures. Now one could consider such treatment legitimate given the fact that Elena is the lead, but when you compare Bonnie’s treatment with that of Caroline, another supporting character, the difference in treatment is rather striking. Unlike Bonnie, Caroline is never really part of the A plot, yet she gets a real storyline allowing her to laugh, cry, lash out, and have a squadron of love interests lining up at her doorstep. Caroline has therefore had romantic entanglements with Damon, Matt, Tyler, Klaus, and Stefan.

Klaus and Tyler fought over Caroline

Klaus and Tyler fought over Caroline

Even Katherine, merely a recurring character, has been sought after by Stefan, Damon, Trevor, Mason, Elijah and Klaus; and Bonnie, well, she just has Jeremy a guy who cheated on her with Anna, his ex-girlfriend turned ghost, at one point even stating that “he always loved her [Anna]” by then completely rejecting his relationship with Bonnie and the importance it could have had for him.

Bonnie, like a lot of WOC on our screens, is made to be asexual and her looks are constantly downplayed so that her female co-stars may shine brighter. bonnie cloth
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Bonnie-Caroline-and-ElenaAs a result she’s afforded the worst clothes, the worst hair, the worst makeup and whenever the storyline calls for formal events (balls, weddings, etc.) – that require characters to wear pretty dresses or smart tuxedos, and often are crucial in building romantic connections and by extension character development – Bonnie is often and very conveniently MIA.

Where's Bonnie?

Where’s Bonnie?

Now, in no way does this mean that in order for a female character to be compelling or relevant, she needs to have a love interest, but in a show that values its characters’ love lives above everything else the way TVD is infamous for, it is very telling that the girl of color gets little to nothing in that department.

I find that studying the whole “shipping” phenomenon that comes with these YA shows and movies is very interesting and telling in the treatment of characters of color and by extension POC in our society.

Elena, Caroline and... oops, not Bonnie.

Elena, Caroline and… oops, not Bonnie.

If we look at Bonnie, it is rather scary how quick the writers are in shutting down ships that involve her and just how violent and hateful the fandom can react to said ships. First off we have Klonnie. Pretty early on, fans began to ship Bonnie with Klaus, the new big bad villain in town. Bonnie was THE character who’d had the most showdowns with Klaus and the only one who could match him in power and strength, making for an interesting dynamic and great potential for something romantic to happen somewhere along the line.

Klaus and Bonnie

Klaus and Bonnie

The Klonnie fan base grew so much that it began to gain the showrunners, cast and media’s attention. Just as soon though, the idea of Klonnie was conveniently shut down and Klaroline (Klaus and Caroline) was made canon instead although it made very little sense in comparison. Another big ship was Kennett (Bonnie and Kol) which was shut down immediately by showrunner Julie Plec.

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But it is okay for Elena and Caroline to date murderous vampires and for Bonnie to date instead her kinda sorta half-brother Jamie? Okay…

And finally there’s Bamon (Bonnie and Damon). Though this ship has existed since the very beginning of the show, it has been getting a lot of attention lately due to the many scenes and relationship development Bonnie and Damon have had in the latest season.

"The Last Dance" - Ian Somerhalder as Damon Salvatore and Katerina Graham as Bonnie in THE VAMPIRE DIARIES on The CW. Photo: Annette Brown/The CW ©2011 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

“The Last Dance” – Ian Somerhalder as Damon Salvatore and Katerina Graham as Bonnie in THE VAMPIRE DIARIES on The CW.
Photo: Annette Brown/The CW
©2011 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

And for once, even the media seems to be hopping on the bandwagon, excited about the prospect of Bamon happening romantically in season 7. However the writers have remained painfully silent about it for years now, and the reactions of some of the fandom has ranged from patronizing comments, to ridicule, to hate and even death threats. Now why is it so difficult for people to understand or even want Bonnie, a black woman, to be with Damon, yet are so quick to root for Steroline (Stefan and Caroline)? Very little people had opinions about Beremy (Bonnie and Jeremy) because it didn’t make any waves. Nobody really cared because Jeremy wasn’t sought after the way Damon is. In being with Jeremy, Bonnie wasn’t a threat to Elena or Caroline. That unspoken rule that she was somehow subservent to them wasn’t breached by her being with Jeremy. Everyone is fine with Bonnie as long as she is seen and not heard. Jeremy isn’t as appealing as Damon because Elena would never want to be with him being as he’s her little brother and Caroline has never even laid eyes on him. But if Bonnie was to be with Damon it would change dynamics completely. It would force the writers to really put her on the map, not as Elena or Caroline’s friend/servant, not as the magical negro, but as her own self worthy of being loved by a character so important and sought after, and that is an idea that a society bathed in white supremacy and white privilege cannot fathom. Ask yourself why Bamon still remains such a delicate subject and so unthinkable to some despite the fact that – unlike Steroline and a lot of other ships – it even has basis in the original book series? Why is it that so many people find it so easy to ship book Bamon when Bonnie is described as a white redhead, but just can’t manage to open their minds to the potential of show Bamon when Bonnie is played by a WOC? Because the society we live in teaches us not to want such things, worse it teaches us to feel disgusted by it and to always prefer whiteness over everything else whether it makes sense or not. Whether it’s right or not.

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Moreover, all Bonnie’s relationships (friendship and romance) are one-sided. Over and over again she is made to sacrifice herself for her friends and boyfriend without even blinking. None of her selfless deeds owe her any kind of recognition as the hero that she is, as opposed to Elena whose very scarce sacrifices owe her unending praise, most of the time undeserved. Bonnie is made to be the automatic sacrificial lamb which has heavily contributed in making her well-being, dreams, desires and entire life seem less valuable than that of the rest of the characters. Viewers are made to see Bonnie as disposable, so much that the rare times she is actually made to take a stand, her character invariably finds herself at the receiving end of unfathomable hate from the fandom.

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Unfortunately, these kind of hateful comments seem to have doubled ever since season 6; when Bonnie was finally given more of a purpose and agency to put herself first which was long overdue and has been for a lot of critics the most refreshing part of what has otherwhise become a pretty repetitive show.

  1. Negationism

Another thing grossly and specifically wrong with TVD is its appalling silence about slavery. In the show’s first season, the year 1864 is of significant importance and is mentioned repeatedly. It is the year when two of the leads on the show, Stefan and Damon fall in love with evil Katherine and are subsequently turned into vampires. There are a lot of flashbacks to 1864 made to set up the characters’ backstories. In a few of those flashbacks, Emily Bennett, Bonnie’s ancestor, and a WOC, is seen and even mentioned as being Katherine’s “hand maiden”. Let’s be clear, though this is fiction, there have been some mentions of real life historical facts. For example, it is said that Damon Salvatore fought for the confederacy; and there even is a scene set up during which he returns home after having deserted, sporting a confederate army uniform. So while there are vampires and witches in this fictional town, it is still set in historical 1864 Virginia, therefore Emily Bennett wouldn’t have been anything else but a SLAVE.

Emily Bennett

Emily Bennett

Yet it was conveniently decided to gloss over that clearly uncomfortable fact, by calling her instead a “hand maiden”. That is disgusting not to mention completely unnecessary. Katherine is known to be one of the most evil characters on that show. She strings guys along, pretends to be dead to lure in her prey, manipulates, lies and kills. It would therefore stand to reason that she wouldn’t have had much of a problem being a slave owner, so if anything, calling Emily Bennett what she probably was – which is a slave – wouldn’t have changed Katherine’s character in the slightest, but in fact could have even brought more depth to her character and Emily’s, yet the writers conveniently chose to ignore that fact.

"Lost Girls" - Paul Wesley as Stefan and Ian Somerhalder as Damon in THE VAMPIRE DIARIES on The CW. Photo: Bob Mahoney/The CW ©2009 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

“Lost Girls” – Paul Wesley as Stefan and Ian Somerhalder as Damon in THE VAMPIRE DIARIES on The CW.
Photo: Bob Mahoney/The CW
©2009 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Even worse, in Mystic Falls, the fictional town of Virginia where the story is based, tons of events are held celebrating the founding families. We see Elena, Stefan, Damon and Caroline happily attend the founders’ ball, and even play dress-up in 19th century attire at a founders’ parade. Bonnie obviously wasn’t at the ball nor did she dress-up for the parade – not because it would have been disturbingly wrong, but it probably had something more to do with the fact that she is banned from wearing pretty dresses, but I digress.

Instead, she was made to snap pictures, watch the parade and wave happily as her friends celebrated the lives of people who owned her ancestors. Talk about inappropriate!

Tyler wearing a confederate army uniform

Tyler wearing a confederate army uniform alongside Bonnie

  1. Black lives don’t matter

Another issue I have with this show is how quick and easy it is for people of color to die. To give you an idea, here is a list of all the characters of color that have been killed off without it triggering any grief or sense of loss for the characters and the viewers: Pearl (Asian), Harper (black), Luka and his father (black), Conor (black), random black guy eaten by Caroline, Jesse (black), Ivy (Asian), Qetsiyah (played by an Indian actress but supposed to be black). Versus the characters’ deaths that were met with some kind of emotional pain by at least one character: Jenna (white), Vicki (white), Grams (black), Tyler’s father (white), Tyler’s mother (white), Anna (Asian), Lexi (white), Isobel (white), John (white), Luke (white), Rose (white), Andie (white), Elena (white), Nadia (white), Katherine (white, her death is made a big deal out of though everyone hates her), Jeremy (white), Bonnie (black, not sure if I should count her in because she was dead for 3 months and none of her friends even noticed…), Damon (white), Sheriff Forbes (white).

But what is probably most telling about how little the lives of characters of color matter on this show, is when we compare Bonnie and Caroline losing their fathers. Bonnie and Caroline are both part of the main cast, yet though Bonnie has been part of the main plot even more so than Caroline, she isn’t given parents and a home or even just as much as a bedroom until season 4 (after fans kept demanding it from the writers).

Caroline and her mother

Caroline and her mother

Caroline on the other hand who has never really been part of the main plot, was given a home, a room and a very present mother pretty much since the pilot. Caroline’s estranged father was then introduced briefly back in season 2 before being killed off, while Bonnie’s father who was supposed to have been living with her all along was only introduced in season 4 to be killed off right away! But this isn’t even what is most problematic here, what remains most disturbing is how differently the deaths of both fathers were handled. Caroline’s father dies with vampire blood in his system. His hate for vampires was so strong that he made a conscious decision to die instead of completing the transition. Caroline sat by him as he breathed his last breath and was left to grieve, as her sense of loss was addressed in an entire episode. On the other hand, Bonnie who was a ghost at the time (don’t ask), watched her father’s throat being slit open by a maniacal killer and couldn’t so much as hold his hand as he laid dying. We see her scream and cry in horror through a camera shot that lasted all and all probably a couple seconds and… that’s it. Everyone moves on!

Bonnie and her father

Bonnie and her father

None of her friends are ever made to mention what happened and Bonnie doesn’t either. She just lights a candle in remembrance of her father a season later, without her trauma and grief to ever be addressed or even mentioned. What’s more, later on in season 6, Caroline’s mother dies of cancer and that’s enough to make her turn off her humanity and be at the center stage of a few episodes, while Bonnie once again gets nothing.

Why does this matter? Because if a show for teenagers is able to dehumanize people of color in a way that nobody or very little people seem to question, it tells us something really scary about our society and our level of tolerance for racism. It tells us why black people are so easily brutalized by police all over the US be it a man murdered over a routine traffic stop or a 14 year old girl being assaulted by a police officer, it tells us why a man can get pushed off a metro carriage in France for being black, why 147 Kenyan students can be murdered by terrorists in general indifference, why thousands of migrants can drown in the Mediterranean without anyone batting an eyelash, or why doing away with the confederate flag was even a subject of debate. TVD – and an appalling number of mainstream shows – is a construct of a society that oozes systemic racism and white supremacy. White people watch TV and internalize those toxic ideas to such extent that POC become irrelevant, worthless and invisible to them. POC watch, and if they’re not alert enough, begin to hate themselves and subconsciously apply the rules of colorism to their own communities. When we’re not in front of our TVs, we’re being fed those ideas by the Internet, by the movies, by commercials, magazines, and the very people around us. That is why it is so important to speak up whenever we come across such destructive attitudes and narratives. Simply ignoring them will not do. We are not overreacting, we are not being paranoid in standing up for what is right, whether it is walking through Ferguson with our hands up or tweeting network executives about the racism in their shows which contributes to poison impressionable teenaged minds. We can all make a change in our own little way. No issue is unimportant. I may not change the world by writing this article, but I will cause at least one person out there to question things and that in itself is a victory. Silence is complacency.

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Art, Entertainment, Media, Movies, Racism, Shannon Jeanna, Television

Awakenings: How I woke up to the movie industry’s systemic racism

The other day, I was talking to one of my coworkers, a white French guy, who couldn’t seem to understand the uproar caused by the shameful whitewashing of Ridley Scott’s latest movie Exodus: gods and kings. I took a breath, counted up to ten to stop my blood from boiling, and calmly explained to him why it is racist that white people were cast to play Hebrews and Eygptians aka POC, and why it was doubly racist, not to mention offensive, that black people were cast solely to play slaves and criminals. Unfortunately, whatever I said seemed to be of no use and he was adamant to linger within the grasp of his clearly racist ideals.

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As I continued explaining it to him as calmly as I could, I began to notice just how conditioned, if not straight up brainwashed by media he is, and it did scare me all the more when I thought to myself that he probably isn’t the only person out there who was raised and conditioned to believe such nonsense. I mean, if you think about it, all the movies ever made in Hollywood about biblical times (excluding DreamWorks’ animated movie The Prince of Egypt) or the Middle East are whitewashed; be it Hollywood classics like The Ten Commandments (1956) starring Charlton Heston as Moses and Yul Brynner as Ramses II, Laurence Of Arabia (1962), starring Sir Alec Guiness as Prince Faisal King of Syria and Iraq and Anthony Quinn as Auda abu Tayi, and Cleopatra (1963) played by Elizabeth Taylor; or more recent movies like Prince of Persia (2010) and Noah (2014), all of which are composed of predominantly if not exclusively white casts when the stories are actually set in the Middle East, about Middle Easterners aka POC.

Exodus cast aka Heidi Klum's Halloween party

Exodus cast aka Heidi Klum’s Halloween party

To that severe abnormality must be added the fact that representations of people from biblical times in all forms of western art are also whitewashed, very often depicting Jesus, for example, as white and blonde with blue eyes.

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Add to all of that genuine backwardness, narrow-mindedness and ignorance, and you got yourself people like my coworker, stewing in ignorance, truly led to believe that both Hebrews and Egyptians are white people. Those whitewashed images penetrate peoples’ subconscious minds without them even noticing it. Only when I googled “Egyptian people” and showed my coworker that they actually are brown skinned people, did he even begin to question things.

i don't see race

During our discussion, I tried to explain why representation is so important, and that given the fact that there are already so little roles out there for POC, that aren’t stereotypical and just ridiculous, it is only common sense that the little amount of decent roles about us should, i don’t know, go to actors of color as opposed to white actors who already have infinite other roles to choose from! As an example, I mentioned that I, as a brown girl, am NEVER represented in media. He then got me thinking about the moment I first realised that fact (probably so the heat would be off him) and I honestly couldn’t remember. Having thought about it for a few days, I finally managed to recall that while the process took time, was very gradual and is still ongoing, involving a few years of informing myself, learning, reading, watching things and basically educating myself, one event did AWAKEN me to the institutional, systemic racism perpetrated by media. That awakening began when I watched the movie Bend It Like Beckham, a comedy by Gurinder Chadha about an Indian girl born and raised in Hounslow, England. Her passion is soccer and the whole story is a pretty accurate portrayal of how the two cultures she was raised in seem to clash constantly while she’s caught in the middle, belonging to both, and alienated by both at the same time. As a French Sri Lankan raised by Sri Lankan parents and born and bred in France, that movie resonated greatly within me. Please note that to this day I’ve actually never seen a movie about a Sri Lankan raised in a foreign country, Indian is the closest I can get… I was about 14 or 15 when I finally got around to seeing Bend It Like Beckham and I remember thinking: “Oh my gosh! That is totally me!” I was suddenly awakened to what it felt like to be represented in a movie and it felt rather peculiar, in a good way.

Parminder Nagra as Jess, Kiera Knightley as Jules and Shaznay Lewis as Mel

Parminder Nagra as Jess, Kiera Knightley as Jules and Shaznay Lewis as Mel

As a 90’s kid, I grew up with TV and watched A TON of it. I knew almost every TV show out there and watched all of it with great enthusiasm without, I must admit, viewing much if any of it with a critical eye. I was clueless to the fact that very little POC were represented. That I wasn’t represented because for the longest time, I – or rather my subconscious mind – thought I was white. I grew up with Disney movies, admiring and looking up to its princesses (huge Ariel fan here), swooning for its princes (Prince Philip is a babe), and the first show that I ever watched that wasn’t a cartoon was Saved By The Bell. I had a huge crush on blonde haired Zac Morris (played by Mark Paul Gosselaar who by the way was extremely whitewashed despite being half Indonesian). I wanted to be Kelly Kapowski and had virtually no interest in Lisa Turtle, despite the fact that she was just as pretty and way more lively than Kelly (I’ve realised that only recently when watching SBTB reruns).

Saved By The Bell cast

Saved By The Bell cast

Just like everyone else, I watched shows like Lizzie McGuire, Even Stevens, Full House, Step By Step, My So Called Life, Charmed, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Roswell, Smallville, Friends, Invisible Man, Dawson’s Creek, One Tree Hill, Gossip Girl, etc. all starring predominantly, if not exclusively white casts. I was however also a big fan of more racially diverse shows like Fresh Prince Of Bel Air, Sister Sister, Family Matters, Kenan & Kel, That’s So Raven, Dark Angel, but the majority of what I did watch, or rather of what was available to me, were white shows, and none of them starred brown Asians, even as extras…

You may think “Oh poor you! How did you bear it?” to which I can only say that I didn’t know any better so it didn’t really matter to me. That is until I had that awakening. You may have heard of the movie Awakenings based on Oliver Sacks’ book, and directed by Penny Marshall (yay for female directors!). It starred Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams, in a story about a group of patients incapable of functioning properly and basically in a vegetable state. Dr. Sayer (played by Robin Williams) comes along and has the idea of using a new treatment which awakens them back into reality as fully functioning human beings, as if back from a long slumber.

Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro in Awakenings

Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro in Awakenings

When I first watched Bend It Like Beckham, it truly was a similar type of awakening for me. As if all this time I had been blind and could suddenly see. I finally got a taste of what it was like for the brown girl to be the protagonist, not the stereotyped side-kick waiting in the shadows while the white girl gets to shine. This time, the brown girl was in the spotlight! She was the one the audience was rooting for, the one who was actively chasing her dreams, the one who got the guy. It was totally new to me; being able to relate to a character in a way I never thought possible. I’ve watched that movie probably a million times (and still enjoy it to this day).

Parminder Nagra and Jonathan Rhys Meyers in Bend It Like Beckham

Parminder Nagra and Jonathan Rhys Meyers in Bend It Like Beckham

After that, I began to crave such stories, and went looking for more of that narrative, so I searched for similar movies and found almost none… Sure there was Bride And Prejudice by the same director, and while I enjoyed it, I couldn’t relate half as much as I did with Bend It Like Beckham. Then there was The Other End Of The Line by James Dodson, starring Shriya Saran, Jesse Metcalfe, and Anupam Kher (who was also in BILB), which wasn’t successful probably due to its amateurish skits, but I was ready to cut it some slack since so little movies like that have been made. There was also another movie called Bollywood Queen, starring James McAvoy and Preeya Kalidas (who played a minor role in BILB), but was so mediocre that even I can’t cut it any slack. That’s it. I searched and searched and finally had to admit that the movies made about girls that look like me: stories about brown girls in the Western world, can literally be counted on one hand! WTH!??

representation

After that, everything I watched and read, I did it with a critical eye. I wasn’t passive anymore, I watched and read things actively and straight away noticed the lack of diversity in the media that I consumed. I discovered the terms tokenism and whitewashing which embodied those frustrating feelings I felt inside but couldn’t really put in words. I went from being conditioned by media into cluelessness, blissfully ignorant of the problem, to being awake and painfully aware of it. After that, everything I watched and read made me feel forgotten and ignored, and I began to question things. When I watched a show, I no longer related to the protagonist just because they were the protagonist, I no longer shipped characters together, just because I was supposed to. I used my brain, and began to relate to the characters that embodied what I felt like, which is forgotten, overlooked and unimportant. I related to all the under-developed characters, the forgotten ones, the so called irrelevant ones. I felt for those characters that were designed to be nothing more than tropes, plot devices, the best friend, the “magical negro”, the comic relief, lacking depth and devoid of much if any character development and story line. All these “characters” have one common denominator though: 99% of the time, they are played by actors of color.

Fourth from the right is Bonnie Bennett, cast as the "magical negro", the only POC on the CW's hit show The Vampire Diaries

Fourth from the right is Bonnie Bennett, cast as the “magical negro”, the only POC on the CW’s hit show The Vampire Diaries

I kept asking myself why it didn’t seem to bother anyone that we always get to see the same people be protagonists and the same others being, well, The Other? Then I realised that for the longest time I myself was clueless, just like my coworker who thought that Egyptians are white. It’s not his fault, just like it wasn’t mine. We were both conditioned the same way by media, by the system. The difference is that as a POC, I had to awaken sooner or later to reality. As a white guy, my coworker can afford to simmer in blissful ignorance pretty much for the rest of his life because it’s not going to affect him whether or not Moses is played by a white guy, because there are already millions of stories out there about him that he can pick and choose from, while I have literally four movies, four representations of myself, to take away with me; the same way a black girl has very little media representing her and a First Nation girl has none. This lack of representation is however not only crucial for the main people interested (POC), but also for white people. Because when white people watch Bend It Like Beckham, that is what they’ll think brown girls are about, and while a lot of that movie is true to life, there is so much more to us than just that. Because before being Brown, or Black, or Native, we are people, complex human beings with a million different traits that story telling has hardly even begun to scrape. When it comes to POC in the media, even the tip of the iceberg remains submerged under water.

Representation-Matters-1

The discussion I had with my coworker the other day showed me more than ever what white privilege is to those who are either too stupid, lazy or indifferent to awaken themselves to its despicable realities. After all, why should a white person care about whitewashing, and under-representation or misrepresentation of minorities when they already have an ocean of media representing themselves? How could they even begin to understand what it feels like not to be represented when all they see all day every day are representations of themselves in every possible angle?

I know what you must be thinking: now what? Is this the end of the story? Are we to surrender and admit defeat? Hell to the no! It starts by complaining, ranting about what frustrates us, talking about it, but it should never end there. Once you’ve vented, go out and do something about it! Yes, boycotting counts, petitions count, but we cannot expect white people to write stories and make movies about us that will be portrayed accurately, because they do not know what it’s like to be us. The bottom line is that WE have to write about ourselves because we are the only ones who can do it truthfully and properly.

Be the change you want to see in the world.

Mahatma Gandhi

No situation is all positive or all negative and I do see something positive in our story. Having been so exposed and even forced to deal with stories solely revolving around white people, like players standing on the side lines, we know BOTH worlds and can write about both more accurately, thus bringing them together! As POCs, we can even write about each other! I can write about brown people, and feel like if I put in real work, respect and heart, I can also write about other POC because, while we do each have very different cultures, powerwe understand each other on the stuff that matters because we know what it’s like to be forgotten, stereotyped, diminished, dominated, ridiculed and even hated. We know what it’s like growing up with media that completely ignores us as if we’re not interesting enough or even worth talking about. But I can also write about white people because I’ve grown up and live in white culture. It’s all around me. It’s all we ever see and hear about. It is by creating, writing, filming, producing, distributing our own stories that we can truly awaken people, both POC and white to reality and the importance of diversity and representation; so that one day none of us will ever have to explain to our coworkers why movies like Exodus are shameful, or even better, such bigoted movies would never be approved for funding in the first place.

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Art, Change, Greetings, Rebel With A Cause

Happy 2015 folks!

Dear reader,

I hope the year Marty McFly visited the future will be filled with joy, good health, dreams coming true and love. I wish that it will bring about progress not only regarding your own personal journey, but also for the rest of the world, and that by the end of it, we will find ourselves a step closer to true equality, respect and understanding between men and women, light skinned and dark skinned, rich and poor alike.

A person is the product of their dreams. So make sure to dream great dreams. And then try to live your dream.” Maya Angelou

I am looking forward to welcoming, meeting and connecting with new rebels, new dreamers, new artists, new creators, new people, all craving the same thing: honest and diverse representation of all of us in the media, which I believe will lead in turn to more harmony and understanding between peoples and a true change in our society.

The fight is real and we shall overcome.

My motto for this year is pretty simple, though not the easiest to keep: live. Live as in making the most of each opportunity, taking time to appreciate my blessings, decisively facing life’s obstacles, taking on the unknown with a brave heart and standing up for what is right. I will probably fail miserably at keeping such a challenging resolution, but promise to try my best.

I’ve started the year with a pretty inspirational jam, and I think you should too. Here’s to dreams coming true. 🙂

With every broken bone, I swear I lived” OneRepublic

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Entertainment, Media, Movies, Racism, Rebel With A Cause, Shannon Jeanna

Mainstream dystopia or when the oppressor becomes the oppressed

Remember when Twilight was all the rave and there wasn’t a thing we could do without being ambushed by commercials, billboards, posters and T-shirts displaying skinny, pallid, blood sucking, sparkling “vampires”? Stories romanticizing rape culture and portraying female protagonists that were as weak as they were uninteresting? Remember that? Yup, don’t miss it either. You can therefore imagine my relief when that vampire trend finally passed, giving way to the genre of dystopia. My enthusiasm knew no boundaries when I realized that the tables finally seemed to turn, going from dependent protagonists (more like no-tagonist) such as Bella Swan or Elena Gilbert whose whole lives revolve around sickly 200 year old vampires, to a strong Katniss Everdeen fighting for her freedom and that of others.

HG Divergent katniss-vs-bella

The trend was finally to showcase girls, young women, having agency, making their own decisions, being strong and downright badass. Nothing could go wrong, right? Right?

Wrong. While I will applaud mainstream dystopia, and by extension Hollywood, for portraying strong female characters who are smart, brave and strong, still having the ability to be human beings with their own sets of flaws, I have to say that one thing does bother me and that is the underlying hypocrisy of these stories. In order to explain my meaning, I have chosen two examples: The Hunger Games (HG) and Divergent, arguably the most successful dystopian stories both as far as book sales and box office.

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Divergent and The Hunger Games

Both are very similar and sound really great on paper: a girl fighting an oppressive regime to secure both her freedom and that of others. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, in fact, those are the kind of stories that tend to catch my attention straight away. After all, who isn’t about “giving power to the people”? Those kind of stories need to be told as often as possible, not to mention that they’re generally pretty riveting interesting, inspiring and empowering. The real problem here is that the whole narrative is about rebelling, fighting for freedom, making sacrifices for the greater good, being noble and basically questioning the status quo… Yet the whole subtext is in fact about supporting that same status quo. It is sly, it is subtle and it is diabolically genius.

One simply has to take a good look at the protagonists to understand my meaning: pretty white girls leading revolutions. Indeed, both main roles went to two white very successful actresses, who by no means needed those roles to put food on the table, and who are already starring in just about EVERY single major movie: Shailene Woodley (Fault in our Stars, The Descendants, White Bird in a Blizzard) plays Tris, the heroine of Divergent, and Academy Award winner Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, Serena, X-Men) plays Katniss, the heroine of HG. What is peculiar in mainstream dystopia is how race is completely erased, yet oppression and poverty remain. That convenient erasure of color is there for a reason: to enable most of the people oppressed to be white without it raising many if any questions. Who cares? It’s just fiction right? It is no big deal that most of the “poor oppressed people” in these stories are white when in real life it couldn’t be further away from the truth; because the only thing that really matters is to keep on perpetrating the image of white people as the heroes, all that while the rest of humanity is shown as incapable of helping themselves without the white man’s ill-advised assistance (see below Rue in the HG). This is what I take issue with: the fact that the most privileged, most represented group in all of media also gets to be a symbol of revolution, and fighting oppression. In mainstream dystopia,  the cover girls for rebellion are white. Not African, not South Asian, not East Asian, not Hispanic, not Native. WHITE. And not just any white girls; white girls that fit into society’s destructive ideal of beauty and worth; an ideal that is already and constantly being forced down our throats and minds all day every day. That my friends, is the status quo hiding itself behind the idea of revolution. How’s that for propaganda?

Katniss Everdeen and Tris Prior

Katniss Everdeen and Tris Prior

Another thing that proves to me that these stories support the status quo is the presence of token [insert under-represented group] characters. If you look well, tokens are everywhere, in every story, always whipped out in order for it to seem inclusive. Tokens are side characters that have little or no story line, and aren’t actually characters. Sure they might have a name, a few lines here and there, but in the end they’re nothing but plot devices. Both stories have their very own lot of tokens. However, I will only discuss the main ones: Rue in the HG and Christina in Divergent.

Just like everyone else, I was disgusted by the racist comments some HG fans made on social media about being disappointed that an African American actress was cast to play a character that they imagined to be white because she was described as cute and innocent; all that despite the fact that the author states as clear as day that Rue is black. All those comments are actually very telling of what we’ve been conditioned to think, and has been proven time and time again with the tragic deaths (or should I say ruthless killings) of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and the countless black men and women that have been killed for no reason. Media conditions our subconscious minds to believe that white equals gentleness and innocence, while black equals roughness and guilt. It is vile, it is disgusting, and a lot of people who feel that way don’t even realize that they do.

I'm not racist but

In all honesty, I hadn’t read the HG books before seeing the trailer for the first movie, and when I first saw Rue I thought: “Let me guess, she’s the token black girl. Figures!” I wasn’t surprised or impressed. If anything, I was bored with it. Yet another pointless movie with a pointless token black girl, who isn’t even Lupita N’Yongo black, because Hollywood is so racist that it wouldn’t even bother to cast an actor with beautiful ebony skin to play even a minor role (remember what I was saying last time about media’s obsession with mixed race actor’s “better half“). Just what the doctor ordered I thought! But then I realized that maybe I was being too judgmental. After all, I hadn’t seen the movie or even read the books, so I decided to do both, and unfortunately, both were unsurprising. Rue isn’t a character, she’s nothing but a plot device, a means to an end. Rue is what made Katniss the Mockingjay. She is what made Katniss remotely likeable. While Rue has very little story line and virtually no back story, SHE is what gave Katniss – that cold, grumpy, one dimensional, unlikable character- a certain amount of depth and heart. Rue was a means to making Katniss a hero. Not to mention the fact that all of it was yet another instance of the white girl saving (or in this case trying to save) the black girl. Rue, just like every other token in HIStory is nothing but a pedestal for the white protagonist. That my friends, is the status quo in all it’s glory. Bet Katniss’ rebellion sounds a lot less cool all of a sudden…

rue's death

Divergent is no different unfortunately, Christina – played by another not “too black” Zoë Kravitz – is nothing but Tris’ sidekick. She has very little lines and no back story (at least in the movie). We just know that she was formally part of the Candor faction and that’s it. In the books, she does have a relationship with Will though, which is something that isn’t even mentioned in the movie, perpetrating once again that whole idea that when black women/ women of color aren’t portrayed as Jezebels, they’re just asexual. White girls date, have romance, hot guys fighting each other for their affections, and worshiping the ground they walk on, and girls of color, well, just don’t. Christina is no different and it’s almost as if she wasn’t even in the movie. Not having read the books, I have no idea if she is to play an actual role in the second installment, but I’m not going to hold my breath for that.

Zoë Kravitz as Christina

Zoë Kravitz as Christina

Another problem is the casting in the movie adaptations. In HG, although Katniss’ ethnicity is open to discussion, the fact is that she is described in the books as having olive skin and dark hair. Despite that, it is pale skinned, blonde haired Jennifer Lawrence who got the part, and what makes it even worse is that the actual casting call was solely open to Caucasian actresses, proving once again Hollywood’s racism. Gale, Katniss’ love interest, is described as having dark hair, olive skin, and grey eyes, yet who was cast? Pale skinned, blue eyed, blonde haired Liam Hemsworth.

Liam Hemsworth

Liam Hemsworth

As for Divergent, Tobias aka Four is supposed to be biracial, his mother Evelyn being described in the book as having “(…) curly black hair and olive skin. Her features are stern, so angular they almost make her unattractive, but not quite. …At that moment I realize that he and the woman have the same nose— hooked, a little too big on her face but the right size on his. They also have the same strong jaw, distinct chin, spare upper lip, stick-out ears. Only her eyes are different— instead of blue, they are so dark they look black.According to this description, Evelyn is clearly a POC, making her son biracial by extension. Yet white Theo James (though they tried to bank on his Greek heritage to somehow prove that casting him wasn’t too much of a stretch, which it is) was given the role of Four; and pale skinned, blonde, blue eyed Naomi Watts was cast as Evelyn!

Naomi Watts and Theo James

Naomi Watts and Theo James

When I complain about whitewashing, I often come across people rolling their eyes, telling me I’m overreacting, that it is the actors who best fit the role that were cast regardless of skin color, or that the movie wouldn’t have worked if unknown actors and actresses of color had been cast. See but those are nothing but lame excuses. The truth is that if a story is good, it will be successful whether you cast a famous actress like Jennifer Lawrence or someone unheard of like Q’orianka Kilcher. Look at Life of Pi for example, it was critically acclaimed though unknown Indian actors Suraj Sharma and Irrfan Khan were cast as the protagonist. Not only that, but there are a number of actors and actresses of color that not only do have the star power to attract audiences but are also talented enough to play the part. Scandal anyone?

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Mainstream dystopia needs to be more diverse, and more than just that, we need to tell more stories and make more movies about the non-fictional oppression people of color have had to suffer and still suffer today. Movies starring actual actors of color instead of white actors that were simply asked to tan (like it has been the case in Ridley Scott’s Exodus movie, Rooney Mara playing Tiger Lily in the upcoming Pan movie, and the infinite amount of whitewashed movies ever made). Stories and movies about the colonization, slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, etc. are to this day extremely scarce and/or disgustingly sugar coated. Those stories need to be told truthfully because we need to hear them whether we are black, brown, white, yellow or green. It is only by hearing about all of these forgotten people past and present, and the challenges and injustices they have faced and still face today that we can all truly move forward, together in unity as one human race.

Do not get me wrong. HG and Divergent aren’t bad in themselves. In fact, I do think that they bring something great to the table in terms of empowering young girls and women. It is a wonderful advancement for the image of women in media and something that I hope will not just fade away once the trend of dystopia does finally disappear. However, when watching/reading these stories, one might want to put things back into perspective just a little. When you get blown away by Tris throwing punches here and there and Katniss taking down a plane with a single arrow before giving us a long heartfelt tirade about freedom, you might want to open your eyes wide enough to spot that same vile oppressive status quo dressed in the bedazzling cloak of rebellion. So when you see Katniss and Tris fighting injustice and oppression, ask yourself this: if there were to be real life cover girls for rebellion, what would they really look like? I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure they ain’t white.

Malala Yousafzai, Nobel Peace Prize Winner.

Malala Yousafzai, Nobel Peace Prize Winner.

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Art, Entertainment, Media, Movies

Ring a Belle? (Review of the 2013 movie Belle)

Disclaimer: This article contains spoilers of the movie Belle. If you haven’t watched it already, go see it, then come back and read this article! 🙂

Anybody who knows me knows how most of the movies out there tend to annoy the hell out of me. Part of it, I will admit, is because I am a pretty difficult person to satisfy and I always seem to find something to nit pick. But for the most part, what annoys me to no end is how almost every single movie (and TV show) I watch has sexist and/or racist elements in it that just drive me crazy (I’m sure you know the feeling). So just as I tweeted Amma Asante (the director of Belle, who in fact favourited my tweet, yay me!), watching Belle really felt like a much needed breath of fresh air.

Amma Asante faved my tweet

Honestly, when you got yourself a political drama about slavery with just a dash of Jane Austen added to it, it’s hard to go wrong. But what I loved most about the story isn’t only the fact that it centers around a woman of color (which is something that you almost never get to see in movies) but also and mostly that both the fact that the protagonist is a woman, and a person of mixed race wasn’t portrayed in a stereotypical way. What we have with Belle is a story about people, and while certain things that they cannot control (their gender and race) affect their lives and the way society treats them, those elements do not define them.

 belle belle

Regarding women first of all, we see that they are friends, sisters, mothers, daughters, rivals at times. For instance, I really enjoyed the relationship between Dido and Elizabeth which to me, captured what a true friendship generally is. Dido and Beth are like sisters, best friends who tell each other everything and enjoy each other’s company. They look out for each other constantly. When Dido gets to know that she can’t be introduced to society due to the fact that the Mansfields consider that she could never hope to find a suitable match due to the color of her skin, Beth is almost more upset about it than Dido is. Both girls run into each other’s arms for comfort. Because that’s what they are to each other: best friends, sisters, a safe haven. There is a common misconception that women hate each other but, if you are a woman, think for a moment, who are your best friends? Who are the people you feel you can tell anything to, the people who really got your back? Chances are they’re mostly women; and this movie depicted it wonderfully.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido and Sarah Gadon as Elizabeth

Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido and Sarah Gadon as Elizabeth

Dido also showed Beth much compassion when she offered to give her a portion of her heritage in order to make the latter’s dowry more attractive to potential suitors, or when she gave her a shoulder to cry on when James Ashford turned out refusing her affections. Just like any friendship, though, there have been some rough patches. We see it when Dido confesses to Beth that James Ashford harassed her. Beth, who is completely penniless, and has been pressured into “securing her bread and butter” by finding a suitable husband, reacts very harshly to such a confession, telling Dido that he could never desire her because she is “beneath him”. She hurls out those harsh words partly due to her own racism (let’s keep it real, she’s a white girl in the 1700’s!) and partly because of her despair in seeing her one and only suitor slip through her fingers. That scene could have very easily been portrayed as a cat fight; two silly women fighting, ruining their friendship over a man. However, it came off as two friends saying things that they didn’t really mean, as it often is the case in real life.

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Secondly, concerning Dido’s ethnicity, the color of her skin is something that is constantly brought up during the whole movie. Almost every scene has something to do with her blackness and how much of an “Other” she is. While she is well accepted in her white family, she cannot escape that difference. Yet what I enjoyed most was that as much as her “abnormality” seems to be brought up, none of it ever defines her. She is smart, strong-willed and witty, because that is what women of color are, they have their own personality; not because they’re women, not because they are “of color”, but simply because they are humans! That side of it came out beautifully in the movie, and was a pleasant change from the one dimensional, stereotypical women Hollywood insists on feeding us with.

cool belle

However, while the story is set in 1769 England, I found that a lot of things do still ring true in today’s society. For instance, the scene in which Oliver Ashford separates Dido’s ancestry, choosing to ignore her (black) mother’s origins and focus on her “better half” which has “equipped her with loveliness and privilege”, it is something that is still quite rampant in today’s entertainment business. Just look at the amount of shows and movies that cast actors that are black but not “too black”, East Asian, but not “too East Asian”, South Asian, but not “too South Asian”, etc. Why is it that we hardly ever see any actors that look like Lupita N’Yongo, Lucy Liu or Parminder Nagra on our screens? Generally, successful “non-white” actors are those that are lighter skinned and/or have a white connection (Halle Berry, Zoe Saldana, Jessica Alba, Jesse Williams, Kristin Kreuk, Frida Pinto, Wentworth Miller, Vanessa Hudgens, etc.). That is because casting directors, producers, networks and Hollywood as a whole has taught itself to focus on the “better half” of these actors. Because these actors’ appearance is less “ethnic”, therefore making it less “shocking” to what Hollywood deems average audience members are: poor impressionable racist white people. This is obviously a huge misconception on their part. Logic dictates that audience members are diverse and come in different shapes, sizes and colors; and I also know for a fact that most white people are able to relate to characters regardless of their color. Just think about the amount of people that related to the blue aliens from Avatar! Hollywood needs to let go of its bigoted views and understand that what makes a character relateable is good writing, not the color of one’s skin. That is something that Belle has proven brilliantly.

dido n mama

Dido and her adoptive mother, Lady Mansfield, played by Emily Watson

Another thing I found really enjoyable was how being “of color” wasn’t merely shown as something that any one ought to be ashamed of or treat with derision, but rather that it was something to be proud of, something beautiful; a narrative painfully absent in movies. Speaking of people of color as beautiful is indeed something that is still somewhat unheard of in entertainment. In one scene, Dido tells Mr. Davinier that she knows nothing of her mother except for the color she’s inherited from her. “Then at least you know she was beautiful” says Mr. Davinier. You tell’em John!

Mr. Davinier was played by Sam Reid

Mr. Davinier played by Sam Reid

And for good reason! Unfortunately, white guys telling girls of color that they are beautiful, not only inside, but outside as well, is simply non-existent in most movies. Dido’s relationships with men not only breaks that trend, but is also very true to life, mirroring extremely well what women of color too often go through with white men. Mr. Davinier represents the kind of white man that we could date or marry. Then there’s James Ashford. The scene in which he sexually harasses Dido is very telling of what a lot of white men are conditioned to think about us. In that scene, you see in James Ashford’s eyes his repulsion and fear for what is different (Dido’s chocolate skin) mixed with a certain fascination and curiosity (what is different is also novel). That scene embodies the complexity of racism which in the end is a twisted mix of attraction and repulsion. In fact, racists often try to hide their racism by bragging that their best friend/wife/husband is black/asian/jewish/[insert minority]. Both Ashfords illustrate two types of white guys that I must confess I’ve often come across (though definitely not as blatantly). On one hand, there’s James Ashford, the narrow-minded white guy who has been taught and conditioned to feel attracted to only one type of beauty, the “pure English rose”; on the other hand, there’s Oliver Ashford who seems drawn to the “rare and exotic”, like some sort of sick fetishism. Though they are polar opposites when it comes to their feelings for Dido, both brothers objectify her pretty equally, treating her like a “dark body” to be consumed and/or ridiculed. Only Mr. Davinier sees Dido for who she really is, striking a perfect balance between loving her regardless of the color of her skin and recognizing the beauty of that skin.

close up dido

Belle teaches all of us a beautiful lesson of self-worth that remains much too absent in film and dare I say in life. We see how Dido gets engaged to Oliver Ashford so suddenly, despite the fact that she clearly doesn’t love him. Marrying Oliver Ashford is an opportunity of a lifetime for Dido who knows that a woman of her status could never dream of a better match and that marrying into the Ashford family would help secure her place in society, keeping her from having to replace Lady Mary Murray as house keeper. Dido keeps lying to herself, fooling herself into believing that she is in love with Oliver Ashford, because if she did refuse him, who was to say that any other respectable suitor would come her way? Isn’t that something that a lot of people ask themselves? “I don’t really love him/her, but what if I never find what I’m looking for?” That’s how we end up settling for less, rather than taking risks to pursue what it is that we really want. Mr. Davinier strikes the nail on the head when he says, “You are above reducing yourself for the sake of rank. I pray that he would marry you without a penny to your name for that is a man who would truly treasure you.” Through those words, we are taught a lesson that we may have often heard but too often forget.

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While the story is set in the late 1700’s, and addresses the harsh realities women had to deal with at that time, having to sell themselves to secure their future, relegated to nothing “but [men’s] property (…) at the caprice of a silly sir and his fortune”, I found that Lady Mary Murray, played by Downton Abbey‘s own Penelope Wilton (though a supporting character) was very interesting and empowering. As a single woman who often tells Dido and Beth about her one true love that she never married, she could have very easily been portrayed as a pathetic old maid, but on the contrary, she is smart, has strong opinions, wit, is feisty, and in my opinion a true feminist, even advising Beth to “wait for no man”.

costumes

Costumes designed by Anushia Nieradzik

Of course, there is no such thing as perfect and I do have a few issues with this movie, especially regarding its failure to address even in a sentence Dido’s formative years as a slave, as well as her relationship later on with the white servants of the house (who I doubt would have appreciated taking orders from a “mulatto”) as well as with Mabel (her black maid). Addressing these issues would have helped bring more depth to the story and emphasize the harshness and sheer loneliness of Dido’s condition. The absence of such elements did therefore leave me somewhat disappointed. 

dido sees mabel

Finally, I am one of those people who stays in the theater till the very end in order to watch the credits roll, and I must say that I was pleasantly surprised to notice the amount of women involved in making this movie. Amma Asante is a British-Ghanain director, though relatively unknown, this was her second feature film and I’m excited to see what else she has in store. Misan Sigay (a black woman) wrote the screenplay (though there has been some controversy over who wrote what between Asante and herself). Due to the fact that I am so obsessed with soundtracks, I have a pretty clear idea of just how male dominated the field of film scores is. You can therefore imagine how ecstatic I was when I realised that Rachel Portman composed the music. For those who don’t know her, she was the first female composer to ever win an Academy Award (you might know her from movies such as Marvin’s Room, Emma or The Duchess) and she certainly did an exquisite job with the score of Belle, giving it a very elegantly haunting Jane Austenish quality. The movie was also edited by two women: Pia Di Ciaula and Victoria Boydell, the costumes designed by Anushia Nieradzik, and women are present in pretty much every aspect of production rather equally to their male counterparts. An honorable mention also goes to the beautiful cinematography provided by Ben Smithard (granted, he’s not a woman, but talent isn’t specific to one gender) who just blew me away with wonderful shots, some of them reminiscent (deliberately or not) of one of the most important movies about women: The Color Purple.

color purple

Dido gazing through her window

The_Color_Purple_poster

Promotional poster of The Color Purple

The quality of this movie is a testament to just how badly the entertainment industry is in need of women and people of color involved in positions of leadership (directing, producing especially). Only then can we be grazed with such truthful stories about human beings, as opposed to the stereotypical representations of women and minorities that so often pollute our minds.

Does the law not have a duty? Does the Bench and Parliament not have a duty to uphold and create the laws that progress our morality, not retard it? If not to protect us from others, then to protect us from ourselves. Laws that allow us to diminish the humanity of anybody are not laws. They are frameworks for crime. And quite frankly, I really do not care if you as an individual are without character or conscience. But a land whose laws sanction, not control, the barbarous among its citizens, that is a country whose hope is lost.” Mr. Davinier

color purpleeee

Cinematography by Ben Smithard

Each of us have a part to play in igniting that fire, whether as audience members, by supporting movies depicting women and minorities fairly; and/or as artists working hard to access leadership positions in the world of entertainment, so that stories like Belle and The Color Purple may become the rule, not the exception.

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Fake Feminism, Media, Patriarchal Society, Sexism

Beware Of The Fake Feminist

Everybody wants to be a feminist these days! It’s like a fashion trend, being a feminist is cool; cue for all self-titled feminists to appear out of the woodwork.

Over the past few years, I’ve noticed quite a resurgence of feminism, or rather should I say, of people labeling themselves “feminists”. That got me wondering, what exactly does being a feminist mean? Don’t worry, I will not bore you with the philosophical and political definitions that have already made for countless amounts of studies and endless research. In fact I’ll answer this question very quickly: being a feminist is inherent to being human; it is embracing the fact that women are human beings. As humans we all bleed and sweat, have fears and doubts, hopes and aspirations. There really isn’t much more to understand here.

Feminism is the radical notion that women are human beings.”

Cheris Kramarae

What feminism means to me is simply that women, like men, are complete human beings with limitless possibilities.”

Fahmida Riaz

However, in pop culture, I’ve come to realize that feminism often finds itself manipulated by celebrities for their own personal gain, just like charity. Celebrities who truly have principles and stick to their guns are very few, in fact you could probably count them on one hand. You just have to think about the amount of “causes” famous people “support” without having the slightest clue what they really are standing for. I mean, think about it, do you really think that half the celebs who dumped ice on their heads last month really truly cared about ALS or even know anything about that disease? Probably not. But it made them look good to dump that ice on their head. They weren’t really taking a stand for anything, they were merely satisfying their hero complex (I do believe that a minority of them really did care, but most of them were really giving into a form of mass peer pressure). Look at it this way, how many celebs responded to the Ice bucket challenge, while hardly anyone publicly reacted to what happened in Ferguson? Talking about Ferguson meant taking a stand for something that could potentially make them unpopular, while supporting ALS is devoid of any risk-taking whatsoever. Is is neither political, nor controversial. It’s easy.

wasting water

I know what you must be thinking, what does any of it have to do with feminism? Well in pop culture, feminism has become just another cause like fighting breast cancer or ALS. Calling yourself a feminist will never have a negative impact on your career, if anything, it’ll make you even more popular, especially if you’re trying to attract a wider female demographic. The hard part is really standing for equality in everything that you say and do, and basically practicing what you preach regardless of the (often negative) consequences it may have on your career and how unpopular it might make you. If you keep bragging about being a feminist and then turn around and call yourself and your fellow females “bitches”, then it’s pretty clear that you don’t stand for feminism. You can’t have the cake and eat it, but apparently, in pop culture you can.

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This is of course an ethical issue. People might (and will) say that it doesn’t matter if celebs really don’t care about feminism and are just labeling themselves that way to make more money, because what matters is that, thanks to their fame and popularity, they get the message of feminism out there. But that’s just the problem. A lot of times, artists completely buy into the patriarchy while labeling it feminism and that is disgusting not to mention dangerous.

wonder woman speech

What generally happens is that they do what everyone does; use the cheapest ploy in the book: provocation. They use sex to sell their material. The raunchier, the better. We had that back in the day with Madonna, we had it with Miley, and more recently with Beyonce. The problem isn’t that their performances are solely meant as shock value, but rather that they try to be all righteous about it and justify it by calling it feminism. There’s a whole generation of artists (men and women) who call women “bitches”, objectify and disrespect them while labeling it feminism, and not only do they gain more followers (which means money) but also find themselves revered as great examples of feminism, or men standing for women’s right. A hog in armor is still but a hog.

Beyonce Knowles at the 2014 VMAs

Beyonce Knowles self-proclaiming herself a feminist  at the 2014 VMAs

You see, I always have a problem when people try to excuse provocative behaviors solely meant to boost record sales and get attention, by saying that it is nothing but women “owning their sexuality”, in the name of feminism.

Robin Thicke's 2013 Blurred Lines music video

Robin Thicke’s infamous Blurred Lines music video (2013)

First of all because, like I said, most of the time, it is nothing but a cheap excuse. In Wrecking Ball, Anaconda or Partition, who is really owning their sexuality? Are Miley, Nicki and Beyonce really any different from the girls in Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines video? Why do people consider the latter offensive, but when it comes to the former, those seem to be healthy examples of womanhood? Just because these women are okay with objectifying themselves doesn’t mean that they’re owning their sexuality. The truth is that there’s isn’t much of a difference between being objectified and letting yourself be objectified. The end result remains the same. When a music video (or movie) meant to be seen by millions, depicts a half naked woman giving a lap dance to a fully clothed man, it is sending out a message, especially when half the music videos out there depict the same thing. Why does the woman have to be half-naked and not the man? If both were half-naked there would be less of a problem because both would be equally objectified (that is not to say that objectifying anyone is okay), but you never see that whether in music videos, movies or magazines. The woman is always the one being objectified, just as she’s been for centuries. She’s portrayed as a piece of meat simply there for consumption. A lot of people, including young girls, get confused when they see people like Miley Cyrus or Beyonce Knowles strut the stage with confidence and nothing much else on. They are generally considered “sassy” and “sexy”, admired, idolized, and taken (whether they like it or not) as role models. Young girls (and guys) figure, “Oh, look how confident they are! They’re not afraid of being sexual. That’s what a strong confident woman is all about!”  And that is the main danger, the public, and sometimes the artists themselves think they are breaking the rules when really they are only supporting the status quo. The same status quo that has oppressed women for centuries. Here’s the misconception: being sexual doesn’t equate owning one’s sexuality. Being sexual is what we see everyday, all day on our screens: women (and men though not nearly as much) objectifying themselves. Slowly but surely, it gives the impression that the only way a woman can own her sexuality is by being overtly sexual in everything she does. That sends out a really messed up message which only contributes to strengthen the despicable rape culture we live in.

Miley Cyrus' 2013 Wrecking Ball video

Miley Cyrus’ highly sexualized Wrecking Ball video (2013)

Feminism is about knowing that women are human beings (oh my!). As human beings we are all different. We have different qualities, flaws, dreams, doubts and ambitions. Each and everyone of us is unique. We cannot be put in a box, relegated to a meager stereotype as we often are in the media. Therefore, it is only logical that it be the same with one’s sexuality. We don’t all have to own it the same way. Thankfully, or that would mean that we’d all be condemned to swing naked on Wrecking Balls or lap dance Jay-Z!

phew

I’ve come to the conclusion that owning one’s sexuality is really about having the strength of character to stay true to who you are, despite the pressure everyone around you (society, family, friends, etc.) may put on your shoulders to act a certain way. What I’m saying boys and girls is that if you truly want to own your sexuality, just be yourself! Stay true to your personal beliefs and principles, whatever they may be. Newsflash, the so-called prude who decides to save him/herself for the right person, especially in a world where such a thing is made out to be weird and unhealthy, is owning his/her sexuality just as much as the person who chooses to be promiscuous, in a world where such behavior is praised. Whatever your choice is, as long as you know why you’re doing it and that it isn’t the result of peer pressure, wanting to “look cool”, what’s going to sell, or [insert any other shallow reason], then only will you truly own your body.

We all can do it

So no, I do not have an answer for you. I don’t know if Madonna, Miley, Nicki or Beyonce are owning their sexuality because I don’t know what their true motivations really are. Are they simply doing it for attention, fame and money, or are they doing it because they’re trying to express what they really believe in? I’ll let you be the judge of that.

All I know is that pop culture would gain a lot if, instead of solely promoting that kind of sexual ownership, it showcased the infinite other ways people can truly own their sexuality. Because in truth, most people do not need to (nor particularly enjoy) owning their bodies in glittery g-strings or sequined leotards. Most of us real people manage to do a much better job at it, in a much classier, meaningful and healthy way, sometimes even in sweat pants and with no makeup on! Maybe the media ought to show that side of the coin as well, don’t you think?

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Second of all, why does everything always have to be about sex? Why does being a woman, always have to do with being sexual? Why does it always have to be about the body and not about the brain? As if the only kind of power women can have lies in their beauty. The type of “feminism” we see in pop culture solely tends to be about women owning (or supposedly owning) their bodies, but what about owning their brains? Why is there nothing deep and cerebral about being a feminist (according to what mainstream media feeds us)? Because in the end, that is what being a feminist really is about, isn’t it? More than anything, it’s about going further than just the package that you see (and it also works for minorities). Why is there sexism and racism in this world? Because people stop at someone’s outward appearance to judge and discriminate, instead of trying to see beyond the stereotypes they have attached to a certain gender or skin color. Feminism is about treating everyone like human beings because women are human beings! Now I’m not saying that women’s bodies should be something that we ought to hide and be ashamed of; to the contrary, women of all shapes and sizes are to own their bodies with pride, whether you’re wearing oversized sweatpants or sexy lingerie, whether you’re skinny or voluptuous, prude or promiscuous. However, being a woman is also and mostly about owning your ideas, your opinions, your beliefs, because that’s what being human is all about. It is truly tragic that that side of women (which is by far the most important one) seems to be constantly silenced in today’s global culture, just as it has in the past. Women who talk about real issues are often considered “boring” or “ball-breakers” because for generations, people have been conditioned to believe that all a “real woman” worries about is being pretty, sexy, finding a husband and having kids. So when suddenly a woman breaks that mold, some of us (especially men) feel destabilized. Just look how smart, ambitious, cerebral women like Hillary Clinton, Ségolène Royal (French politician) or [insert any powerful woman] are treated (often ridiculed) by the media. The public is made to care more about what they wear rather than what they have to say.

segohilla

Ségolène Royal and Hillary Clinton

From the dawn of time, women have been relegated to walking, talking bodies ready for men to consume, so when our celebs -whose status offers a platform establishing them as global influences- do just that and call it feminism, it tends to be a little hard to swallow for the rest of us real life feminists. Kind of like a beautiful casket. It may look good on the outside, but it doesn’t change the fact that it is enclosing a decrepit corpse. We’re made to believe that the average audience member would rather watch some scantily dressed woman shake her butt to the camera rather than hear what she actually has to say (or sing), about real issues. Because today, being a “bad bitch” is made to be cooler than being able to have an intellectual debate on how to empower women in a sustainable way.

FeminineFeminist

But ask yourself this, between the “bad bitch” lap dancing some guy in a music video because she F’ing wants to, and the “stuck-up prude” who’d rather place cerebral matters before sex appeal to actively speak up for women, who is serving the status quo and who is questioning it? Who’s buying into the patriarchy, and who’s smashing it?

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Art, Change, Media, Racism, Sexism

Enters in Rebel With A Cause

Ever watched a TV show or read a book and cringed at the sight of the token [insert any minority] character solely brought in to make the story seem inclusive?

Ever shook your head disapprovingly at the sight of women being objectified in music videos and films?

Ever wondered why and how today, in the 21st century, the media we consume still remains just as sexist and racist as it was fifty years ago?

Ever wondered what you could do to help change things?

So have I. Enters in Rebel With A Cause. Now I don’t have all the answers, in fact, I don’t have any straight forward answers to any of these issues. But I do believe that it all starts by asking the right questions. The rest will come as we go.

The most subversive people are those who ask questions.” 

Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World

Ask anyone what tokenism or rape culture is. Most people won’t have the slightest clue, some will argue about the real impact it has on society, and some others will even try to dismiss its existence. However, racism and sexism are not trivial subjects; they have plagued humanity ever since the dawn of time and unfortunately, the media seems to feed off of it instead of using its power and influence to break such disgusting mentalities.

Dickson, 90210's token black guy

Dickson, 90210’s token black guy

Paco Rabanne's advert promoting rape culture

Paco Rabanne’s advert promoting rape culture

Media no longer is a rare commodity only enjoyed by the richer few. In the industrialized world, 98% of households have at least one TV, global radio audiences reach 4.2 billion people, 1.4 billion people worldwide use a computer and 4.4 billion people in the world have mobile phones. Note that I haven’t even mentioned laptops, iPads, smartphones, etc. Once you’ve managed to digest all these numbers, think about the millions of TV and radio channels airing 24/7, the millions of weekly magazines, and movies out everyday; all so easily available to the masses, not to mention social media and the unfathomable amount of information that oozes every nano second out of it. Now that’s a hell of a lot to take in don’t you think?

In this wide maze of information, finding one’s voice and being heard gets tricky. It is easy to get lost both from an audience perspective and an artistic perspective. The overload of information has lead networks, producers, directors and artists to fight each other for audience attention. Imagine a room full of noisy people yelling over each other. Multiply it by a million, and you got yourself a pretty clear overview of what media is today; a hot freaking mess.

Only the voices of those who scream the loudest may be heard. So how does one manage to make their voice heard amidst all the noise? Shock value. Sex sells right? I would go further than that and say that it is provoking people that really does all the selling, whether it’s through sex, violence or hate. Provoking people is the fastest and easiest way to get the public’s attention. It’s easy, it’s fast, it’s cheap. Anybody can take their clothes off or act like a complete douchebag to get attention, but not very many people are able to create something meaningful, positive and long-lasting. That actually takes talent.

Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke's 2013 VMA performance made headlines due to its shock value

Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke’s 2013 VMA performance made headlines due to its shock value

A reality show solely meant for viewers to make fun of the protagonists

A reality show meant for viewers to make fun of its protagonists

That is why nowadays, media seems to be a system solely based on negativity; and more precisely, two destructive pillars: those of racism and sexism. Think about it, how many movies, novels or TV shows do not use the cheap ploy that is tokenism in order to seem inclusive? How many stories aren’t based on Othering people because of the color of their skin? How many music videos and movies do not objectify women and/or slut-shame them? Too little. But how much of the media that we consume every day does promote racism and rape culture? Way too much.

Hollywood

This blog is dedicated to peeling off the glitz and glam of show business, layer by layer until we can get down to the nitty-grity. Because everything that is released in the public arena whether music, movies, TV, or literature, everything contributes to shape our perception of the world, to such extent that it invariably ends up imprinting on our subconscious minds. As Michael Jackson once said, “If you hear a lie long enough, you start to believe it.” Scary right? Think about the amount of time that you spend each day in front of the TV and/or computer. We see so much racism, sexism, and violence everyday on our screens that we become numb to it, and that’s the real danger; because the moment we become indifferent to what is wrong, the moment we stop questioning things, that’s the moment we stop fighting to improve the world we live in, and therefore fail to make any real contribution to humanity.

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. But the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

Overall, this blog is dedicated to:

  • trying to debunk the useful and the useless in today’s pop culture,

  • spark debates on what we can do in our own little way to change things for the better

  • review movies, music, novels, artists, etc. that I happen to enjoy (hey this is my blog, I make the rules!)

It is my personal belief that true art not only is meant to be beautiful and meaningful, but that it often questions the rules and has challenged the status quo more than once. This blog is for those who believe the same and wish for it to take its rightful place in the forefront of mainstream media instead of cheap shock value designed to pass off as art.

The role of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them.”

Anton Chekov

We’ve been taught to be -and have been for a long time- passive consumers of media instead of striving to become active agents of change. Let’s encourage each other to go from the former to the latter.

Join me in the adventure.

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