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Blogging Beyond "Good" Versus "Bad" Representations

Monday, January 25, 2010

Fear of a Black Venus

In Spectacle of the Other Stuart Hall writes, "Representation is a complex business and, especially when dealing with 'difference', it engages feelings, attitudes and emotions and it mobilizes fears and anxieties in the viewer, at deeper levels than we can explain in a simple, common-sense way." So I ask you, in a world where women tennis stars are paid millions to wear as little as possible on the courts, what is underlying the public hysteria surrounding Venus Williams 2010 Australian Open outfit, an outfit that she designed for herself under her label?

It appears that the spectacle of the black female bootie threatens the spectra of upper-class respectability surrounding the predominantly white sport of tennis, a sport that has only had 2 black elite female stars in the last 20 years -- Venus and Serena Williams. What I find truly humorous and troubling is that tennis fans and the mainstream media find it plausible that one of the world's best women's athlete would actually go on international television flashing her butt and vagina. What does this say about the contemporary representational status of black urban femininity and sexuality?

Despite their athletic accolades and millions, Venus and Serena will always be "othered" as declassé black girls from Compton Los Angeles. To be a black woman means to be always outside of heteronormative respectability.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

An Introduction

In 1989 Marlon Riggs’ produced “Color Adjustment,” an educational video tracing representations of African Americans in U.S. popular culture starting from the days of minstrel shows and ending with “the Cosby Show.” Suggesting that “positive” representations are as potentially troubling and narrowing as “negative” representations, Riggs’ calls for more complex and nuanced images of black culture in the mainstream media.

For example, Riggs’ argues that images of the black buffoon (i.e. J.J. played by Jimmi Walker on “Good Times” or today’s new jester Mr. Brown played by David Mann on “Meet the Browns”) often coded as a negative representation of black masculinity or the black mammy (i.e. Nellie Harper played by Nell Carter on “Gimmie a Break” or today’s new mammy Christina Hawthorne played by Jada Pinkett Smith on “Hawthorne”) often coded as a positive representation of black femininity together reinforce a narrow set of socially acceptable performances of black identity.

Popular narratives of the buffoon and the mammy remain so prevalent because both serve the interest of white patriarchal culture and capitalist cultural production by remaining palatable to black and non-black audiences. The archetypes present a soothing space of comfortable visibility during moments of social crisis, civil unrest, and economic recession. It is not coincidental that two of the most visible black women characters on contemporary television are caretakers for predominantly white folks, for instance, Hawthorne and Dr. Miranda Bailey played by Chandra Wilson on “Grey’s Anatomy.”

At the same time, for many audiences of color, given the general lack of visibility in U.S. popular culture, most representations of blackness are generally celebrated for their very existence, especially those texts written and directed by black cultural producers such as Tyler Perry (“Meet the Browns”).

Indeed Riggs’s reserves his strongest indictment for Bill Cosby’s most globally successful show “The Cosby Show” (1984-1992), categorizing it as the greatest success and the greatest failure in American representations of black identity. The video suggests that the discourse of respectability embedded in the story of a highly-successful heteronormative African American lawyer and African American doctor and their high-achieving, articulate, and beautiful five children erased the violence of poverty and economic discrimination so prevalent during the Reagan years. As Sut Jhally and Justin Lewis confirmed in Enlightened Racism (1992), it allowed white audiences to feel “good” about the inherent morality of U.S. racial justice and remain comfortable in their political opposition to affirmative action and social welfare programs while black poverty and black unemployment spiraled upwards.

However, the show’s dignified portrayal of black middle class life and the romanticized family also created a comforting and respectable narrative space for diverse audiences. Watching “The Cosby Show” on Thursday night television was one of the few moments each week when my Dominirican family took a break from our busy work and school weeks. Laughing and crying at and along with the Huxtable family reinforced our belief that we were just like everyone else despite our skin color and ethnic or class background. We could forget the every day moments of racism in our schools and discrimination at work and revel in the mundane aspects of life, such as first loves and mother-daughter conflicts.

Some might argue that the consequences of such limited representational practices in the mainstream media are inevitable — more than ten years after the success of the “Cosby Show,” we have a new Cosby Show called the Obama White House. The Supreme Court handed down its first reverse racial discrimination decision (otherwise known as the continuation of the status quo) in the New Haven, CT firefighters case (2009). And universities in the continued wake of the U.S. Supreme Court 2003 Michigan ruling (Gratz v. Bollinger) are backpedaling on their alleged commitment to educational and employment access for students and faculty of color. Increasingly under the cover of the global economic recession, universities are becoming hostile places to work, learn, and live for ethnic, racial, and sexual minorities.

While few undergraduates today grew up watching the old “Cosby Show,” I remain awed by their compelling responses to Riggs’ overall arguments when I show the video in class. They are sometimes overwhelmed by the resilience of black racialized visual narratives in today’s popular culture; and, many times uncomfortable and angry with the lack of an ideological space from which to question representations without reinforcing the exclusive demand for socially respectable images or reinforcing the non-productive conversation about “good” or “bad” images.

My goal in this blog is to provide such an intellectual space — to disrupt the burden of representation by stepping outside of a commitment to respectability; to move conversations outside of the confining dichotomy of the positive and negative image debate.