In Shocking Twist: Oscars both Racist and Sexist

Several years ago, I was attending an academic conference with a group of colleagues from Toronto. As we gathered one evening for dinner, a male friend observed that the women in attendance were “so lucky” that we “got to” have so many different options for how we could dress for potential events, whereas men were sadly restricted to the uninspiring “business casual” option of blazer and slacks. Unsurprisingly, the women in the group quickly assured him that this state of affairs was not a gift to us, but a deeply sexist social structure which invariably guaranteed we would somehow be inappropriately dressed for any event we attend. Fortunately, the man in question is (still) a very good friend with a good sense of humor, so he took our outrage in stride and appreciated why his observation might have been a touch oblivious with respect to the lived experience of the women in his acquaintance.

I recalled that conversation last night as I (for some reason) watched the 88th Annual Academy Awards. It is no secret that for two years now the Oscars have come under criticism for the omission of black actors and filmmakers from nominations. Host Chris Rock did not disappoint when he confronted the #OscarsSoWhite movement head-on in his opening monologue. Honestly, I’m not sure what was more entertaining — Rock’s monologue itself or the awkward laughter from the audience as they were forced to confront some uncomfortable truths about the ingrained racism of the film industry. Perhaps most brilliant was Chris Rock’s articulation of what he dubbed “sorority racism”:

But here’s the real question. The real question everybody wants to know, everybody wants to know in the world is: Is Hollywood racist? Is Hollywood racist? … Is it burning-cross racist? No. Is it fetch-me-some-lemonade racist? No. No, no, no …

… Is Hollywood racist? You’re d*** right Hollywood is racist. But it ain’t that racist that you’ve grown accustomed to. Hollywood is sorority racist.

It’s like, “We like you Rhonda, but you’re not a Kappa.”

This is an excellent observation of the deeply systemic racism that continues to exist even in the “nice” corners of the world, as Rock describes in his monologue. The corners of the world which are happily progressive and liberal, yet still poisoned from the toxic well of White Supremacy that has been the consistent undercurrent in our nation’s history. We all agree that overt discrimination should be illegal, but we remain uncomfortable seeing people of color in iconic roles or positions of authority. As Lupita Nyong’o recently observed, this type of insidious racism is harder to fight because it is a “battle of the mind,” not a legal battle.

So as honest, and as necessary, as Rock’s observations on the racial dynamics in Hollywood may have been, it nevertheless angered me to see him miss the mark so completely on Hollywood sexism. Even as he skewered the marginalization of black actors, Rock made an entirely unnecessary crack at “not being invited” to Rihanna’s panties–effectively reminding the incredibly accomplished performer that she remains little more than a sex object. Even more troubling to me, though, were the closing lines of his monologue when he took issues with another popular Oscars hashtag, Amy Poehler’s infamous #AskHerMore campaign. The movement challenges Red Carpet reporters to ask women questions about their acting craft or the characters they have chosen to portray, not about their appearance. Observing that “men all wear the same thing,” Rock brushed off the movement with the crack that “not everything is racist, not everything is sexist”:

There’s this whole thing, “Ask her more. You have to ask her more.” You know it’s like, You ask the men more. Everything’s not sexism, everything’s not racism.

They ask the men more because the men are all wearing the same outfits, O.K.? Every guy in there is wearing the exact same thing.

You know, every guy there might be wearing the same thing — because they know they will not be held up to public scrutiny by the media like every woman who has the audacity to set foot on a red carpet. It’s true no public figure will get it right on every issue all the time. And, honestly, I wasn’t looking for Chris Rock to take up the feminist cause in his monologue. The issue of racism in Hollywood is one that needs to be confronted without a bunch of white women (like myself) jumping in and saying “Look at me!” But the fact remains Rock DID address the issue. He, as a man, perpetuated in the same sort of systemic oppression he was calling out in his monologue. Yet, maybe in so doing he provided the perfect example of how all of us are complicit in so many varied forms of oppression. We must indeed always be vigilant regarding how we can support those struggles which are not our own and be open to correction when we inevitably fail.


White Supremacy, “Wild Seed” and Wider Perspectives

The nice thing about being married to someone who impersonates a white supremacist is that one does become more aware of what sorts of issues are arising in the white supremacist community. While maybe not the desired outcome of their energies, racist and misogynistic ire can serve the helpful purpose of highlighting individuals of whom one was (shamefully) unaware.

IMG_0505As, for example, when certain pockets of the “weird fiction” community became quite incensed at an emerging movement to have H.P. Lovecraft’s likeness removed from the World Fantasy award, in favor of a less divisive figure. One name being put forward to assume this honor was the female African-American author Octavia Butler. The moral of this story is that angry voices on the internet introduced me to Butler as someone whose work I should probably have read years ago. I recently finished Wild Seed, the first installment in Butler’s “patternist” series, and it was indeed unlike much of what speculative fiction has to offer. Not least because a book like Wild Seed by no means allows its audience to ignore issues of race, gender, and identity. But, like all good literature, it grounds such grander social themes in very human characters.

Wild Seed tells the story of two immensely powerful individuals–Doro, who kills and inhabits any body he desires, and the shape-shifter Anyanwu. Perpetually hunting for new people with “special” abilities to incorporate into his genetic breeding program, the three thousand-year-old Doro locates the centuries-old Anyanwu in her small African village. With promises (and threats!), Doro lures Anyanwu back to his New York community where he is the effective slave master to a collection of individuals who must obey him to have any hope of survival, and whom Doro treats as little more than breeding stock in his quest to forge a genetically superior human race. Having been born in freedom (and possessing power nearly rivaling Doro’s own), Anyanwu is “wild seed,” never able to be fully controlled by Doro.

So much could be said about Butler’s depiction of race and gender in these two central characters–from Anyanwu’s attempt to hold on to her native identity in a European culture, to the various sexual boundaries Doro forces his children to cross. But the heart of the matter is how Doro and Anyanwu relate to their respective bodies. Specifically how unlimited they are to one particular embodied experience. Doro is effectively bodiless. Anyanwu questions whether he is an embodied being at all, as he seems to be pure spirit, merely “borrowing” but not truly inhabiting the bodies he kills. Anyanwu is, alternatively, almost pure body–her ability to assume various forms stems from her intimate knowledge of her body down to the smallest molecule. And it is significant that, though she may take on any form she chooses, she willfully identifies with her original form — a young black female body. If Doro holds the position in Butler’s work as ultimate oppressor, it cannot be overlooked that he is a being in no way restricted by his body.

To be unlimited by bodily limitations is, in Bulter’s writing, the ultimate power. Not because Doro–or Anyanwu–possess great physical power. But because they are in some fundamental way immune from the reality every one of us faces–we must all nagivate this world as people with specific bodily experience. That fundamentally matters if we are part of historically marginalized groups. No man can understand what it is for me to live in a female body, just as I cannot imagine what it is like to navigate a white-dominated culture as a person of color.

Towards the end of the novel, Anyanwu herself spends several years living effectively as a white male plantation owner in 19th century Louisiana. Perhaps her most poignant observation comes when she observes to Doro that, though she will not own slaves, she had become oblivious to the horrors of the slave culture surrounding her plantation. As Anyanwu notes, living as a white person for too long blinded her to the plight of those she would never have ignored before.

If I remember nothing else from Wild Seed, it will be that passage. It is a subtle but powerful reminder to those of us who navigate our culture in bodies afforded the privilege of not needing to be constantly mindful of our racial identity. It is a challenge for us to do the hard work of being mindful of those whose lived experience differs significantly from our own.

Yet more life lessons from Sleepy Hollow

In his “Letters to Malcolm” (one of by favorite books on prayer), CS Lewis stresses that we cannot bring to God only those petitions that we feel are worthy of divine attention. We can only be honest with God about what is on our mind at any given moment if we are to have any hope of integrity and authenticity in our spiritual lives.

And so, following Lewis’s sage advice, I could offer profound thoughts on our annual Lenten pilgrimage. I could talk about what a great experience it was to offer Ashes-t0-Go for the first time in my new campus community, and the vital importance of the church to in going out of our buildings to engage with the very earnest spiritual hunger in the world around us. Or I could write about Sleepy Hollow, the guiltiest of my guilty pleasure TV obsessions. The supernatural crime procedural recently return from its mid-season 3 hiatus, and all signs point to the writers taking a renewed interest in pretty much the only thing that makes the show worth watching–the fantastic performances by leads Tom Mison and Nicole Beharie. For which my unashamed fangirl heart is incredibly grateful.

I have written about Sleepy Hollow here before. Partially that is because I am a lover of the ridiculous (need I sing the praises of Galavant yet again?) and it is hard to get more ridiculous than a show about a temporally displaced Ichabod Crane serving with his faithful companion LEFtenant Abbie Mills as the two witnesses destined in the book of Revelation to thwart the apocalypse as prophesied by the Founding Fathers of the United States. Or something? It’s hard to follow. But I also find it fascinating (and depressing) to reflect on how much Sleepy Hollow was something of a victim of its own success.

Sleepy Hollow was a surprise hit of the 2013-4 TV season. And it was amazing, not to mention one of the most racially diverse series on TV–featuring not only the brilliant Beharie herself, but Lyndie Greenwood as her sister Jenny, the delightful Orlando Jones has police chief Frank Irving, and John Cho as Abbie’s former police colleague. It was awesome. Nobody made a big deal about it. And people loved it. You can read read my previous thoughts on that subject here.

Then season two happened. I have no evidence to back any of this up, but it is as if some group of executives started making decisions less born of creativity and more from a desire to build a bigger and bigger audience. Unfortunately, this led to foregrounding the stories of the white characters (some of whom were needlessly introduced) while marginalizing others, including Abbie Mills. You can read my previous thoughts on the subject here.

Which brings us to the present third season. I am delighted that the writers have learned from the error of their ways and are once again foregrounding the relationship between Ichabod and Abbie. All the same, I am frustrated at how increasingly bland the stories have become–did I mention Ichabod and Abbie are the only reason to watch the show? All I want is a zombie George Washington or cryptic theologically problematic Biblical references! Is that too much for a priest to ask? Instead we have gone from the Horsemen of the apocalypse to … Pandora? And some generic “nameless” deity. Yet again, it seems creative choices are being made by writers and produces not in the attempt to make fun or compelling television but to reach as broad an audience as possible. In so doing, they have done a pretty good job of alienating that fan base which gave them such unexpected success two years ago. And they have effectively diminished one of the truly unique projects on network TV. Only seven episodes remain before the almost certain cancellation of the series.

Perhaps there is a lesson in that for all of us, whatever our situation in life might be. In the church, for example, we are always searching for new ways to be “relevant” to the world around us. To a degree, that is absolutely right. We must constantly seek new ways of connecting with an ever-changing culture (see above, re: Ashes to Go), and we must always work to break down those barriers which rightly give people pause before crossing the threshold into our religious communities. But we must be wary not to do so wholly at the expense of those traditions which give our faith shame and meaning in the first place. It is a delicate line to walk.

Even outside the context of the church, though, it strikes me there the focus of our various endeavors can be so easily misguided. All too often, social media fails to be a source of genuine human connection and becomes a context where we are all trying to build “likes” and “followers” or “up-votes.” Rather than building friendships, we build platforms, presenting highly curated versions of our lives. We might think of what has become of the state of our democracy when candidates across the political spectrum perform for the approval of voters, not any sense of personal integrity. Or, in the context of the classroom we work for top grades and academic standing — which means we fail to take risks because it might mean bringing down a perfect GPA (a state of mind I know all too well).

I think the most any of us can strive for–whether in our spiritual lives, our friendships, or our work–is authenticity. Perhaps even vulnerability. Because if we are always working to satisfy others, rather than embracing our own unique God-given identity, our lives might be safe and comfortable, but they will always be a little more shallow–a little less quirky and unique–than they could be.

The only think I have to add is that if I stuck with three seasons of Sleepy Hollow and Abbie and Ichabod never actually get together, someone at Fox owes me a lot of money. It’s 2016. I promise the interracial couple won’t bite.