Art, Change, Entertainment, LGBTQIA+, Media, Movies, Racism, Shannon Jeanna, Television, Transgender

Black or White? #MoviesSoWhite

In case you didn’t already know – which is crazy really because EVERYONE knows this – I’m a huge hard-core, die hard, [insert cool adjective] MJ fan. He was more than just the greatest entertainer that ever lived to me, he was an incredibly lovely human being and that’s probably what I love most about him. Anyway, a few days ago it was announced that a TV movie was going to be made, detailing an alleged road trip from New York to Ohio, involving Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando after the 9/11 attacks. As an MJ fan, I can already tell how disrespectful the mere concept is not only to Michael Jackson’s legacy, but also to that of Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando. But, let’s skip the issue that the movie in itself is based on a lie, to discuss what exactly has Black Twitter and Tumblr – and MJ fans alike – up in arms. White British actor Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare In Love) was cast to play Michael Jackson…

Ever since the announcement, a lot of people have been putting in their two cents: MJ fans argue – rightfully so – that Michael himself wouldn’t have wanted a white actor to play him, while others insist that, although he was African American, he did appear white later on in his life, making it okay for a white actor to play him.

In the midst of all this, I realized something rather important. Most people seem to forget the reason Michael’s skin was so light during the second part of his life: vitiligo. Vitiligo is an incurable skin disorder that destroys skin pigmentation by portions while putting patients at higher risk of skin cancer. Michael suffered from vitiligo universalis (universal vitiligo), meaning that depigmentation altered most of his body. This affected him tremendously and on so many levels. Having to deal with such a rare condition (touching 1% of the world’s population) was traumatic on a personal level, especially given the beauty-obsessed business he was in. This caused him to keep his condition a secret, suffering in silence for years, thus putting him in a much lonelier, more marginalized place than he was in the first place due to his ground-breaking fame. As if that wasn’t enough, mainstream media ridiculed him and made him out to be ashamed of his race, brainwashing the public into believing that he’d purposefully whitened his skin so that he might be shunned by both the black and white community. Vitiligo also affected the way he dressed: he always wore long sleeves, surgical masks and even had an umbrella-man to protect his hypersensitive skin prone to cancer. Vitiligo was therefore a huge part of Michael Jackson’s experience and identity. To erase that would be to erase part of who he was.

Michael on the set of They Don't Care About Us (how fitting!)

Michael on the set of They Don’t Care About Us (how fitting!)

So why has no one brought up the fact that if a movie was ever to be made about Michael, if anything, he should be played by a black actor who has vitiligo? Apart from Michael Jackson, there has never been a more famous person suffering from such a prominent case of vitiligo. Only very recently has the beautiful model Chantelle Winnie taken the world of fashion by storm. Despite that, people suffering from vitiligo still have very little representation in the world of movies and media at large. If I’m honest, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie or TV show depicting someone who has vitiligo. Making a movie about Michael Jackson is therefore the perfect opportunity to cast a black actor with vitiligo. A great opportunity not only in order to remain true to Michael’s story, but also for a black actor suffering from that skin disorder to actually get work, be put on the map and given a chance to showcase his talent. But that’s just too much asked it seems, instead all we get is yet another white guy stealing (appropriating wouldn’t be a bad word in fact) someone else’s job and therefore only managing to perpetuate the under representation – and often times misrepresentation – of a given group; in this case, black people suffering from vitiligo. Casting a white actor to play MJ strips him of the essence of what he was and represented: a talented, successful, affluent black genius who shaped the world of entertainment and broke racial barriers on one hand; and a regular black man struggling with the physical difficulties and social stigma that come with vitiligo on the other.

Proper casting is vital for so many different reasons. The first is credibility. Cis straight white non-disabled actors cannot fathom what it’s like to be part of a marginalized community. It doesn’t matter how much “research” you put into it, how much makeup and prosthetics you cake on, how many hours you spend with an accent coach, or with the real life person the story is inspired by. I don’t care if your name is Marlon Brando, or how empathetic you are, the bottom line is that you are and will always be cis, straight, white and non-disabled. Because of those inherent characteristics, and no matter how mesmerising your performance may be, you will never be able to trump that of an actor who actually possesses those characteristics by merely existing! Given the fact that you belong to a privileged group, you have no clue what it’s like to deal with transphobia, homophobia, racism, or ableism day in day out. As a member of that majority you cannot possibly grasp the nuances and subtleties of living that kind of life. Of course, one could make the case that acting is about putting yourself in the shoes of a character that is nothing like you in real life. However, in a system which oozes double standards and only allows for a “certain kind” of actor to play any existing role, while the rest only get crumbs, certain ethical rules certainly need to be set in order to restore equity.

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The second reason is representation, because representation freaking matters! Newsflash: people hailing from marginalized groups actually enjoy reading books and magazines, watching movies and TV, seeing plays, and Broadway shows. Believe it or not, none of us live our lives being constant sidekicks to cis straight white non-disabled people. We are the leads in our own lives, so why not in movies also? We too deserve and long for the spotlight! Our stories matter, our opinions matter, our lives matter. I will never say this enough: Bend It Like Beckham changed my life. That kind of representation made the little brown girl in me subconsciously realize that I could take the driver’s seat. I could be the hero, I could be smart, I could be beautiful, I could be anything I wanted. I can do all that MY OWN WAY instead of constantly trying to tend towards whiteness. We live in a society that solely elevates the cis straight white non-disabled angle as the norm, the default narrative that everyone should strive towards. If you so happen to be a square peg in a round hole, you’re supposed to force yourself to fit that model until you break, instead of adapting it to who you really are. Such a mentality is toxic to us all. We all need to see different angles to broaden our horizons and better live together, and contrary to popular belief, the universe will not implode if all movies and stories do not automatically celebrate and worship cis, straight, white, non-disabled people.

tumblr_o1wrwf5emq1u55joyo1_540White privilege is profoundly embedded in society, and movies are no different. Cis straight white non-disabled actors in particular already have a wide array of roles to choose from in an industry where cis straight white non-disabled roles continue to be the rule. As if that wasn’t enough, they also get to take the scarce roles about marginalized people away from actors hailing from said groups, and who have a hard enough time as it is finding work. This is especially prevalent when it comes to roles about POC that seem to be constantly whitewashed so white actors may play them. The film industry therefore enables a bunch of white actors to play ancient Egyptians in Gods of Egypt, snow white Emma Stone gets cast to play a Hawaiian woman in Aloha, lily white Rooney Mara is even considered to play Tiger Lily in Pan, whiter-than-white-tea-drinking Benedict Cumberbatch gets to play actual Indian characters (not only Khan Noonien in Star Trek, but also Shere Khan in the upcoming Jungle Book movie), and still white Ben Affleck gets to be the Latino hero in Argo. Hollywood, French, British cinema (and should I say Western cinema at large), and let’s not forget Bollywood, has a long history of whitewashing roles that it has yet to address.

A similar phenomenon also occurs went it comes to LGBTQIA+ roles. Cis actor Jared Leto played Rayon, a trans woman in Dallas Buyers Club, which even owed him an Academy Award, when an actual trans actress could have and should have played that role. Same goes for cis Eddie Redmayne who recently played Lily, a trans woman in The Danish Girl, awarding him little to no criticism, while directly propelling him in the running for a very probable Oscar nod.

Jared Leto as Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club

Jared Leto as Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club

Another example is the infamous movie Stonewall that managed the prowess of whitewashing, cis-y-fying (is that even a word?) AND male-y-fying (now I’m just making up words) the actual story; thus magically turning Marsha P.Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, two black and Latino trans women – who played a central role in the Stonewall riots – into a cis white gay man played by a cis straight (?) white actor, Jeremy Irvine. More often than not, gay and lesbian roles go to straight actors. Back in the day, Brokeback Mountain was seen as such a progressive movie, finally offering some kind of representation to gay men, while starring two straight actors: Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. When it comes to portraying lesbians, things are worse. Too often do casting directors make it a point to hire straight actresses who respond to society’s ideal of beauty (white, skinny and non-disabled) in order to fit sick male fantasies. The French coming-of-age drama movie entitled Blue Is The Warmest Color (La Vie d’Adèle), about a French teenager discovering her homosexuality was portrayed by Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos both straight as can be. Actress Adèle Exarchopoulos was in fact awarded a César (French Academy Awards) for the part. A more recent example is Carol, a story about a young aspiring photographer and her relationship with an older divorced woman, which stars none else but Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara (her again…). Yup, you guessed it: straight, straight, straight!

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett starring in Carol

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett starring in Carol

Claire Danes in the HBO movie Temple Grandin

Claire Danes in the HBO movie Temple Grandin

And the same “rule” applies to disabled roles, with an increasing amount of non-disabled actors “cripping up” for roles. Claire Danes for example, won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Temple Grandin, an autistic girl from Boston who went on to be a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, and even invented a stress-relieving device for autistic people. Did the casting directors even search for an autistic actress who could play the part? I seriously doubt that. Same goes for Eddie Redmayne (again!) in The Theory Of Everything who played Stephen Hawking, the famous theoretical physicist suffering from motor neurone disease. The movie owed Redmayne another Oscar nomination, all that at the expense of struggling disabled actors! Leonardo DiCaprio was also nominated for both a Golden Globe and Academy Award, at the tender age of nineteen, for his portrayal in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape of Arnie a young man suffering from developmental disability. The list goes on.

The result is that cis straight white non-disabled actors benefit doubly from this short-sighted, prejudiced system. Not only do they have millions of roles to pick and choose from, but those performances are often greatly applauded by the mass cis straight, white non-disabled public just as clueless about the realities of the communities whose narratives are stolen from. This makes me think of Black Swan. Majority of the public ignorant of ballet, actually believed that Natalie Portman did a lot of the dancing herself, which in fact sparked quite a controversy as to whether or not she truly deserved to win the Academy Award. The truth was that ballet dancer Sarah Lane was hired to perform the dance sequences. The reason for that being that a person who hasn’t studied ballet seriously from a very young age, cannot physically perform any of the complex steps required. No matter how hard an actor may work at it, it is just impossible because they haven’t developed certain muscles that dancers do when they are kids and still growing. Same goes for cis, straight, white, non-disabled actors! You cannot grow a sexual orientation, skin color or disability, nor can you possibly grasp those struggles.

Eddie Redmayne portrayed Stephen Hawkings (right) in The Theory Of Everything

Eddie Redmayne portrayed Stephen Hawkings (right) in The Theory Of Everything

The industry seems adamant to use the slyest methods, throwing in as much money as necessary on prosthetics, makeup, coaches, consultants, so cis straight white non-disabled people may continue snatching all the roles for themselves, instead of footing the bill for hiring actors who actually inherently, and naturally possess whatever characteristics needed for said roles.

Keen status-quo defenders are quick to argue that no, it isn’t racism, transphobia, homophobia, ableism, etc. We’re just being oversensitive! Perhaps – in Charlotte Rampling’s own words – black actors just aren’t talented enough, and fighting for more diversity in film really is “anti-white racism”. Or how about Ridley Scott’s two cents? Movies wouldn’t be funded if actors from marginalized groups were cast as leads. I mean, it is public knowledge that the only good, famous actors out there happen to be cis, straight white and non-disabled! Let’s please pretend like it has nothing to do with centuries of unfair advantages awarded by white supremacist, patriarchal societies thriving on slavery, colonisation and the constant shunning of LGBTQIA+ and disabled communities! “White privilege? There is no such thing! Black lives don’t matter! All lives matter!” Such attitudes only contribute to one thing: strengthening the status quo. Viola Davis couldn’t have been more right: “the only thing that separates women of color [and marginalized groups in general] from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.” Nor can you become a bankable, studio friendly actor if you aren’t given a chance to shine in the first place.

And please let us not make excuses for the actors who have the audacity of taking on said roles. The aforementioned people are big names and in no way need these roles to survive in the business. For one missed business venture, hundred other opportunities follow!  Those faces are literally in EVERY OTHER MOVIE! It is therefore their responsibility to turn down roles that they would otherwise be STEALING from struggling actors from given marginalized groups. They (just as much as casting directors) should be held accountable for their actions by the public, instead of being blindly revered for something that isn’t theirs to play with in the first place.

diversityWhile it is great that #OscarsSoWhite has been grabbing so much attention, even leading to the adoption of concrete measures, let’s not make this an annual thing. Part of the reason Oscars are so white is because movies in general – released worldwide all year round – are so overwhelmingly white, cis, straight and non-disabled. Movies (and media in general) are made by and for people belonging to that privileged group. So maybe instead of just boycotting the Oscars, we should concentrate our energy on boycotting movies that lack diversity both in front and behind the camera. Minority groups have buying power, and if President Obama’s reelection has taught us anything, it is that united we no longer are a minority. Our voices count and have an impact. Remember what happened to the Stonewall movie? It tanked because and only because we all agreed to boycott. See how everyone’s talking about responsible eating? How about we made responsible movie-watching a thing? The rule is simple if a movie doesn’t pass the new DuVernay test, meaning if “African Americans and other minorities [including the LGBTQIA+ and disabled communities] don’t have fully realised lives rather than serve as scenery in white [cis, straight, non-disabled] stories”, then don’t watch it, don’t contribute to its box office revenue. No diversity, no money.

The manner in which media is constructed only benefits cis straight non-disabled white people. So while I cannot stress enough how important it is for POC, LGBTQIA+, disabled people to keep on writing our own stories, this also proves how critical it is that we occupy positions of leadership within the industry, (in all areas, from casting to directing and also Academy/César/BAFTA/etc. memberships) or else, the stories that we keep telling, OUR stories, will continue being whitewashed and miscast to further perpetuate our under-representation and misrepresentation, contributing in our erasure of media, and in time of History itself.

Some things in life they just don’t wanna see But if Martin Luther was livin’, he wouldn’t let this be

They Don’t Care About Us – Michael Jackson

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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
bonniehair bad

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.

tvd-elena-bonnie-2

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.

imageedit_1_5606185916 imageedit_3_3554580729 racist tvd 2 racist tvd 3 racist tvd 4 racist tvd 5 racist tvd 6
tvd racisttt 3 tvd racisttt 4

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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Change, Entertainment, Fake Feminism, Media, Movies, Patriarchal Society, Racism, Rebel With A Cause, Shannon Jeanna, Television

Oscars 2015: Best and Worst Moments

Oscar season always makes me super excited and I normally make it a point to see most of the movies in the running so I can speculate as much as I can about who should win what, and rant over who should and shouldn’t have won. But this year was different. This year, the extreme lack of diversity turned me off and instead got me side eyeing the Academy like crazy. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one

Therefore, I will not rant over who should have and should not have won. I may not have seen half the movies nominated this year, but I did check out the acceptance speeches and I have to say that there were some pretty awesome moments, and some awful ones too. I often like to start with the bad news and end on a positive note, so let’s start with the worst Oscar moments.

Oscar fail #1: Sean Penn and his green card

Sean Penn presented the award for best picture to Alejandro González Iñárritu for Birdman. Right before mentioning his name, for some reason, Sean felt the need to preface by saying “Who gave this son of a bitch his green card?

fran

I have to say that when I heard that, it pretty much broke my heart, because I love Sean Penn. I find that he is a very gifted character actor as well as one of the rare celebs who seems to be truly passionate about quietly helping people without cameras in his face. So when I heard that racist joke come out of his mouth, it appalled me. Now I do get that both Sean and Alejandro are good friends and that it probably is some kind of lame ass inside joke, and if Alejandro is okay with that kind of “humour” then so be it; but I think that it really is the whole context that makes it inappropriate. A context in which Mexicans (and Latinos in general) are marginalized, under-represented and grossly stereotyped by media, which in turn has the most awful of repercussions on their daily struggles. So when someone jokes like that about one of the biggest stereotypes attached to Latinos, in a context where millions are watching, especially in a room filled – even more so than normal (#OscarsSoWhite) – with white people, it gives the illusion that, once again, there is nothing wrong with marginalized groups always being the butt end of white people’s jokes. For a second, it even felt like I was reliving Margaret Cho’s cheap impersonation of Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, alongside Tina Fey and Amy Poehler at the Golden Globes

The moral of the story is: if you really really want to make a borderline joke, KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE!!! And that goes for everyone: white people and POC alike. If you’re standing before a largely white audience (aka a privileged group) who has very little knowledge about the history, stereotypes, daily struggles, and overall difficulties marginalized groups go through, HOLD YOUR DAMN TONGUE!!! Because it is doing more bad than good! It may well be a good joke to you, but to the rest of the audience that sniggers away with you, or rather AT said marginalized group, it only encourages them to Other the rest of us and continue seeing us merely as walking-talking stereotypes that aren’t to be taken seriously. Knowing Sean Penn’s pretty progressive political beliefs, I don’t think that he meant any harm (at least I hope not), but it surely doesn’t give him a free pass. He really ought to have thought long and hard about it before blurting that stuff out like that. I mean Sean, seriously, in what world is a televised green card joke about a Mexican ever a good idea?

Oscar fail #2: Patricia Arquette’s pseudo feminist speech

A lot of “feminists” have been raving about Patricia Arquette’s acceptance speech. On receiving the golden statue for best supporting actress, she read off of a white sheet of paper something that she clearly should have given way more thought to:

To every woman who gave birth, to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights. It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America!

I will be honest, I didn’t quite know how to react when I heard those words. I certainly wasn’t jumping up and down on my seat the way Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez were, nor was I shaking my fist in anger. I was more confused than anything else. First of all because part of Arquette’s speech sounded extremely ignorant and self righteous: “(…) To my friends who all work so hard to make this world a better place. To my heroes, volunteers and experts who’ve helped me bring ecological sanitation to the developing world.” What does that even mean? You mean to say she “helped” the entire “developing world”? And what does it even have to do with winning an Oscar? That clumsy wording reminded me of what I call the white hero complex which touches a certain category of white people; the kind who get so insulted when they’re called racist, yet do not want to know what racism really entails. The kind who goes to Africa to “save” what they think are “poor, illiterate, ignorant people who can’t even save themselves”. The kind that does charity work only to pat themselves on the back and feel superior to the people they’re supposedly helping.

saving africa

That got me thinking: in her acceptance speech, was Patricia referring to all women or just white women? Since I wasn’t sure, I thought I’d give her the benefit of the doubt. But then I saw her backstage interview and this is what she had to say:

The truth is: Even though we sort of feel like we have equal rights in America, right under the surface, there are huge issues that are applied that really do affect women. And it’s time for all the women in America and all the men that love women, and all the gay people, and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now.

Say what??! Patricia, in what world do you live in? Apparently the fight for gay people and people of color is won! Someone please enlighten me on where the hell in the world that fight is even close to being over. I find it doubly shocking that she even had the audacity of saying such a thing after watching John Legend and Common’s deeply moving performance of Glory, and hearing their heartfelt acceptance speech addressing the ongoing fight for equality between races (see below).

Secondly, since when have straight white women fought for us? Please note that I’m saying straight white women because clearly, Arquette seems to feel like people of color and LGBT people are entirely separate groups standing on the sidelines, waiting for white feminists in shining armor to come and save them; and that women of color, Lesbians, Bi women, Trans women (both white and of color) do not count for anything. Because if straight white women did fight for us, well they did a pretty lousy job. I hate to be the one to have to say it, but we ARE STILL FIGHTING not only for equal pay, but also not to get gunned down in the street for being black, beaten up for being homosexual/bi/trans, forgotten for being First Nation, ridiculed for being Indian/Chinese/Latino, etc., and overall victims of racism and sexism in all its despicable aspects.

Thirdly, even if white women had in fact fought for the rights of others, are you saying that fighting for human rights is a I-scratch-your-back-and-you-scratch-mine thing? No, because standing up for equal rights means fighting for the recognition of something that is inherent to all human beings whether men, women, white, black, brown, straight, gay, trans, bi, rich or poor. So the I-supposedly-fought-for-you-so-you-should-fight-for-me thing doesn’t even make sense and only reveals Arquette’s sense of entitlement when “fighting” for a given cause. Beware, people of the so-called developing world, because based on what Patricia said, her “supplying ecological sanitation” to you comes with a price: fighting so her pay check can equal Sean Penn’s!

Feminism is inclusive. It isn’t about pitting marginalized groups against each other. It’s about uniting against our common enemy: the patriarchal society ruled by straight rich old white men. So when Arquette says that gay people and people of color should fight for white women because white women supposedly fought for them, it is not only extremely ignorant, but also counter-productive. If anything, Patricia Arquette’s speech has proven one thing: feminism and celebrities really don’t mix! I really hope that she learns from this mistake and informs herself on the matter, because that distorted notion of feminism (which is unfortunately widely popular) really isn’t helping.

Now for the good part of the night, those who actually had something important and encouraging to say. Here’s Rebels’ top 4 speeches (in no particular order of preference):

#1: John Legend and Common march on

You know how I’ve been raving about the song Glory, so I was absolutely thrilled to see it win. But what I enjoyed probably the most was John Legend and Common’s acceptance speech. Short but straight to the point. Inclusive of all people, and embodying beautifully Dr. King’s message of love, peace and hope.

#2: Laura Poitras’ ode to Edward Snowden

The disclosures that Edward Snowden reveals don’t only expose a threat to our privacy but to our democracy itself. When the most important decisions being made, affecting all of us are made in secret, we lose our ability to check the powers that control. Thank you to Edward Snowden for his courage and to the many other whistleblowers and I share this with (…) other journalists who are exposing truth.

I was pleasantly surprised that Citizenfour won best documentary given just how conservative the Academy tends to be. The fact that director Laura Poitras was even allowed to give such a controversial speech is to be applauded.

#3: Alejandro González Iñárritu sets the record straight

I want to dedicate this award [to] my fellow Mexicans, the ones who live in Mexico. I pray that we can find and build a government that we deserve; and the ones that live in this country, who are part of the latest generation of immigrants in this country, I just pray that they can be treated with the same dignity and respect [as] the ones who came before and built this incredible immigrant Nation.

I thought that it was very responsible of Alejandro to address this with such eloquence and sincerity, especially in front of a largely white audience. Whether he meant for it or not, I feel like Mexican viewers needed some kind of damage control after Sean Penn’s clumsy green card comment. Kudos to you Alejandro for handling it with class!

#3: Graham Moore’s inspirational tirade

I love that speech because it is so real. Graham seems to be speaking from the heart, and is so honest about something that we all struggle with at least once in our lives. We are so often told that being different is bad. That it’s something we ought to be ashamed of, that it keeps us from fitting in. But the truth is that the more we try to conform to these insane, rigid and dumb unwritten rules, the more we alienate ourselves from everything good around us. Be yourself and as weird, quirky and different as that means because that is how you will truly find where it is that you belong and truly make a difference in this world.Stay weird, stay different”. Graham, you hit the nail on the head!

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Art, Entertainment, Media, Music, Rebel With A Cause, Shannon Jeanna

Grammys 2015 top 5 performances and snubs

So the Grammys came and went, and I got to say that contrary to what I’d expected, the show was actually pretty good (that is why I’m writing about it so late, woops). Of course, I will not go as far as to assert that it was anywhere near how mind blowing the Grammys used to be back in the day when legends like Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Stevie Wonder or Prince would perform and take home the trophies; but I will say this: compared to last year’s Grammys that were a total let down and felt more like the Teen Choice Awards than anything else, this year’s show was much much better in terms of substance. Of course, there still were a few Teen Choice worthy performances (*cough cough* Adam Levine and Gwen Stefani) and nominations (Shake It Off by Taylor Swift, Fancy by Iggy Azalea, and All About That Base by Meghan Trainor, really?), but hey at least most of the wins were Grammy worthy. I think…

So without further ado, here’s Rebel’s top 5 Grammy performances of 2015:

#5 Pharell Willams, Lang Lang and Hans Zimmer – Happy

Now I know that this performance has had a lot of people torn, but I thought that it was a pretty interesting rendition of what is essentially THE happy-go-lucky hit of 2014. So I thought that it took some major balls (or tits) to give it such a dark and epic twist. Add to that the most unexpected of collabs and you got yourself a party! Speaking of unexpected collabs, believe it or not, I’m not referring to Lang Lang who is pretty famous for working with all sorts of artists (anyone remember his performance with Metallica last year?) I’m actually referring to Hans Zimmer on guitar. Now that was literally the LAST thing I was expecting, but I’m still loving it! Not sure though that I actually heard any of his guitar playing but my guess is that his role was more in the musical arrangement department. Plus, did you notice Pharell shaking in the beginning? Guess even the most successful of artists still get nervous even after being in the business for so long. I thought it was kind of endearing, so much that it almost made me want to forgive him for wearing a Native American headdress on the cover of Elle. Almost.

#4 AC/DC – Rock Or Bust & Highway to Hell

I don’t think this even needs explaining, but I will say that it was really cool seeing them reunited with drummer Chris Slade. Were they trying to make up for Malcolm Young’s absence? Still super bummed about that by the way…

#3 Sam Smith and Mary J Blige – Stay With Me

Let’s be honest, it’s impossible to go wrong when Queen Mary’s in the house. That woman has so much class and stage presence, it’s hard not to get hit with massive feels.

#2 Ed Sheeran, John Mayer, Herbie Hancock and QuestLove – Thinking Out Loud

Such a beautiful collaboration to an epically romantic and soulful song. John Mayer’s signature sound is so present in it that I was POSITIVE that he had written it and that it was his flawless guitar skills on the original track, so when I saw him on stage, I thought that it made so much sense. Herbie Hancock’s beautiful piano playing gave the performance an interesting and unexpected calypso feel and QuestLove is probably the most chill drummer ever. Who else felt all warm and fuzzy inside?

#1 Common and John Legend – Glory

That track – which is part of the score of the movie Selma – is so freaking powerful that it gives me goosebumps EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. Have it performed Live, with a choir, an orchestra, and a few added verses and choruses, and you got me lying on the floor in foetal position balling with an overload of feels. When songs carry such an inspirational and powerful message, I find that it often is hard for a lot of performers to keep it real and not overdo it (yes, I’m looking at you Beyonce; who by the way totally Kanye Wested jazz singer Ledisi). Thankfully though, it wasn’t the case here and John and Common were able to remain natural and convey emotion in an effortless unforced manner. I find that both of them complement each other’s performance so well: Common with his natural class and John who just oozes with soul.

Grammy snubs

As a whole, I thought that most of the award recipients deserved their wins. I do have some reservations though on seeing Sam Smith win four Grammys; one would have sufficed, two at best. Given the overall track list of his album “In The Lonely Hour”, I don’t think it necessarily deserved to win “Best Pop Vocal Album”, that in my opinion should have gone to Ed Sheeran’s “X” album. But still, kudos to you Sam. As for Best R&B song, I honestly feel like New Flame by Chris Brown, Usher and Rick Ross which featured some mad vocals deserved to win. “All Of Me” by John Legend was also shamefully ignored.

There definitely were some other pretty noticeable snubs as well unfortunately. Some albums, despite being pure GOLD, either didn’t win or simply weren’t even nominated. Here are Rebel’s must listen albums of the year:

J Cole – Forest Hills Drive

2014-forest-hill-drive-j-cole (Copy 1)

An album full of substance, bringing rap back to its roots and asking all the right questions about life, love, happiness; which is so damn refreshing given how lately rap seems to have been reduced to “money, booze and hoes” and/or so unapologetically culturally appropriated. J Cole’s album wasn’t even nominated and has got to be one of THE most noticeable snubs. Best tracks: Fire Squad, Love Yourz, and Apparently.

Sia – 1000 Forms of Fear

1000 forms of fear (Copy 1)

Now it is my understanding that Sia’s album was released too late in the game for it to be eligible for the 2015 Grammys, so I really hope it will be in the running next year. I honestly haven’t been this obsessed with an album since Florence + The Machine’s Ceremonials. Entirely worth the listen! Sia’s raw vocals and insane choruses make you feel so empowered that I can guarantee you’ll be running around the room Maddie Ziegler style. Best tracks: Chandelier, Elastic Heart, Fire Meet Gasoline, Eye Of The Needle, Dressed In Black, and Free The Animal. I told you I was obsessed!

Aloe Blacc – Lift Your Spirit

Lift Your Spirit (Copy 1) (Copy 1)

Some classic upbeat R&B tracks that’ll make you dance along to Aloe’s deep soulful voice. The album was nominted for “Best R&B Album” and lost to Toni Braxton and Babyface’s “Love Marriage & Divorce”. Best tracks: Wake Me Up, The Man, Here Today, Lift Your Spirit, Wanna Be With You and Ticking Bomb.

Tinashe – Aquarius

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Tinashe sounds a lot like Aaliyah in a peculiar blend of R&B, pop and hip hop, kind of similar to FKA Twigs’ psychedelic world, only more accessible. This album contains no less than 18 tracks, yet didn’t owe her a single nomination which really is a shame. Best tracks: Wildfire, Bated Breath, Feels Like Vegas, Cold Sweat.

Let’s be real, I just may have forgotten a ton of other talented artists who deserved to win.

What are your albums of the year and top 5 Grammy performances? Let me know in the comments section!

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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.

fundraiser

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.

jesus4

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.

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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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