Tag Archives: white privilege

Othering The Undoing

A response to a blogger’s view of HBO’s The Undoing:

Congratulations on a well written and argued essay about the HBO series The Undoing. Your analysis outlines the ways in which a sophisticated production with a seemingly progressive theme marginalizes its underprivileged characters, exhibiting a racist and sexist underbelly. You point out that Elena Alves, the drama’s murder victim character, is an example of shameless stereotyping: her seductive figure placed on display, sexualized before her grisly death and in flashbacks thereafter, and served up as titillation rather than as someone who has earned the viewer’s sympathy. You observe that in some ways this fits the tradition of murder-suspense in cinema, as murdered bodies are typically the least important characters in this genre. However, you make an intriguing point that this facet should shift as the murder-suspense story that is The Undoing transforms into a domestic drama-suspense, culminating in a courtroom drama, plus a concerned gaze upon class, privilege, and most plainly, evil. Amid the intersections of those themes, you argue that the protagonist, Grace, played by Nicole Kidman, is afforded a more sympathetic portrayal than the murdered Elena, who is at best patronized as an “unfortunate” Latina. And lastly, you assert that supporting characters and institutions depicted in the film view Hugh Grant’s villainous Jonathon Fraser with depth and understanding—a further privilege that is denied the objectified, “bludgeoned”, and therefore dehumanized Elena. Like Grace, we the viewer are seduced into thinking The Undoing a well-meaning, thoughtful and egalitarian narrative.

Now, after that seduction of flattery, here are a few other thoughts:

The comparison you make with Daphne De Maurier’s Rebecca—namely, that its murdered woman is afforded more sympathy than The Undoing’s Latina victim—seems based upon thin evidence. You seem to think that the unfaithful and then revenged upon Rebecca is privileged simply because she is the novel and later film’s titular character. Really? That’s so impactful? Perhaps anti-whaling protesters should take note and heart; be consoled that Melville chose the title Moby Dick rather than, say, The Hunt for a Meaningless Mammal. Anyway, regarding Elena, you also seem to think that because a character is an innocent victim of murder, he or she should necessarily be a sympathetic figure. Well, as you suggest, if The Undoing was a straight-forward murder-suspense, then I’d agree that audiences should identify with the victim as an innocent. But this drama contains elements of social commentary, as you also suggest, and Elena, I’d suggest, is not merely a cardboard, objectified figure, or a convenient stiff, as you put it. Actually, she does exhibit complexity in my opinion, but she isn’t necessarily sympathetic. She is mysterious, which allows for audience projections, which include the following possibilities: that she is a good mother by seeking good care and education for her son; but also that she is opportunistic, passively aggressive, and seductive in a way that I think most viewers will think creepy, not “empowering”, as you seem to think. Her characterization as a not-wholly sympathetic victim of a crime was realistic and therefore good drama; so, too, was the assignment to her of Latin heritage a realistic reflection of setting demographics, and not a facile example of racial profiling.

Next, regarding some support characters and the villain, Jonathan Fraser: You might have made note of the series’ allusion to confirmation bias, as your essay exhibits the same construct of psychology. You believe The Undoing masquerades as a socially conscious drama while exhibiting the same white privilege or institutionalized racism it purports to expose. You skip over that the murder investigation’s lead detective, who is clearly a decent, as in not corrupt, and capable figure, is more than a “dogged” Latino, and is clearly placed in charge of a white male subordinate. Also, the high-priced lawyer whom Grace’s father hires to defend Jonathan is a black woman and clearly portrayed as a super-intelligent, redoubtable, if not entirely ethical person. I suppose that these anomalous elements didn’t fit your thesis so you didn’t explore them. And what quota of positive role models would the filmmakers have to display to satisfy your litmus test of enlightened creativity? Imagine the Rubix Cube of options that producers might consider to make scripts acceptable in the current zeitgeist: could they have had a blonde Hitchcock-like cliché instead of the Elena figure, thus objectifying a woman, but at least not a woman of color? Perhaps they could’ve added a white maid, or another white guy to the slew of hotel doormen we see in the series? Or maybe Jonathan should have been a man of color so that when he is portrayed with “sympathy and complexity” he, too, could be perceived as privileged, or at least rendered equal to other characters. No? Somehow, it seems that Jonathan would be deemed a privileged, sympathized-with figure regardless of his negative attributes—because he is white. Talk about confirmation bias. According to you, he is privileged in the eyes of the filmmakers (not just in the fiction they depict) when he is portrayed as having cheated on his wife, when he has run away from a crime scene and abandoned his wife and child, and even upon the story’s climax wherein he is clearly portrayed as a narcissistic sociopath—an opinion actually voiced half-way through the series by a minor character, Fraser’s erstwhile medical colleague, who attempts to penetrate Grace’s denial about Jonathan.

Your notions of victimization and privilege are tautological and circularly reasoned, so your conception of the Fraser villain is absurd.

What would be your prescription for today’s Hollywood producers and writers? In order to strip the advantaged of their privileged complexity, or the potential for audiences to sympathize with those who don’t merit sympathy, should villains be not only evil, but also uninteresting? Should Hannibal Lechter be a scrawny, witless nerd? Incidentally, I wouldn’t begrudge a re-make with, say, Denzel Washington given a shot at the delicious (sorry) cannibal/psychiatrist. Back to Undoing: Would it have leveled the playing field to make Jonathan Fraser a young, athletic man of color, not a middle-aged, do-gooding doctor whose “healer” persona and charm renders him a credible love interest for a young, beautiful woman? I presume the answer is no, as this change would still involve a socially advantaged figure (a male) in the villain role, plus then the problem would be the negative stereotyping of a racial minority as dangerous. Maybe you could write that thorny script and submit it to a studio, and maybe that script will be good because you are intelligent and you write well. However, I will stop short of saying good luck. I don’t know if you are creative, but I hope that artless social engineers don’t overtake the entertainment industry with their contrivances, though I will thank you for the following: I wasn’t aware that “ass accentuation”, as a concept, is a thing, or that “kiss my ass” or “show my ass” derives from primitive gestures of defiance that Freud will have written about back in nineteen whatever. I’m sure that Colombia professor wrote a fine paper on the subject and that it’s an invaluable contribution to academic literature.

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What it means to be white…and English

 

Got a reading assignment recently, from a loving man and friend who brings me fruit from his garden. Note the word ‘assignment’. You might glean that I was feeling resistant, a bit prickly about what happens next. The book in question is Robin DiAngelo’s What Does It Mean To Be White, a semi-academic, somewhat incendiary text whose subtitle, Developing White Racial Literacy, previews the author’s attitude. My friend had asked me to read this book leading up to and in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, believing a crisis was afoot, and that white people, in particular, need to change the way they think and talk, about race.

I pronounced myself interested, if not zealous like him. In truth, I am cautious about being recruited to something, though I am drawn by the premise. Indeed, some topics need to be addressed, and after 169 entries to date, I figured it was time I addressed this one*. Anyway, I’ve finished my reading so I’m ready for a good chat. I’ll likely start by acknowledging certain points. That our “dominant” culture views racism as a binary—you are or you are not ‘a racist’—thus blocking a meaningful discussion because this bias elicits defense, seems correct. I also agree that our collective privileging of philosophies like individualism, meritocracy, and universalism (platitudes like, “under the skin we’re all the same”) similarly deflect from realistic discussion. On the negative side, I don’t care for the application of terms like ‘literacy’ (implying the corollary, illiteracy) to preemptively derrogate dissenters. It seems not only pedantic, but superior in tone, fanatical. A turn off. Lesser offensive is the book’s ignoring of nationality as an aspect of diversity; further, the notion that racism is a white problem because that term indicates a pervasive, institutionalized phenomenon, while terms like prejudice or stereotype are more appropriately applied to individual situations, seems correct on the one hand. At this point in the text, DiAngelo had already outlined the economic, legal, and social disadvantages largely experienced by people of color. However, if one is subject to an individual act of prejudice, be it dangerous or otherwise harmful, it will seem merely academic what term is applied, which lends an element of so what to this portion of her book.

With that preface, I will next ask my friend if we might sideline the intellectual part to focus on the personal. This is what I thought might be explored at length in What Does It Mean To White, and what I hope to make room for.

When I was a kid (age 0-10), there were few peers or adults of color in my community. I lived in semi-rural areas of Britain, within outskirts (British term for suburb) of UK second cities, Manchester and Birmingham. I recall small populations of Indians, people from the Middle East, but no one of what we now call Asian heritage, and hardly anyone Black or of Hispanic heritage. To me, Black meant someone of African background, and some lived in the inner cities, I somehow learned. I discerned much from TV. I will have learned about slavery from Roots, the celebrated Alex Haley book that became a miniseries, and something of a media sensation. Slavery was horrible, I observed, and was told. It doesn’t exist anymore, adults added.

I learned what ‘Americans’ were from cop shows. Americans, to my 7-10 year-old self were white, spoke in canned voices and said words or terms like ‘wow!’ or ‘holy cow!’ a lot. The ‘other’ Indians, or Native Americans, were…well, I didn’t know where they came from, and I won’t have thought about it. Those cop and/or action shows delineated the stereotypes and hierarchies: white guys were in charge—were the heroes, but also, mostly, the villains. Black guys were bad, as in thugs, generally, but also, sometimes, the hip, as in more knowing partners of the white guys in charge. Asian people were clearly subordinate, the people in charge of the computers and other machines, whether fixing them or else declaring their failures in critical moments. An exception, it seemed, was Star Trek, with its weird Scotsman whining, “Cap’n, I canna git ni pewer!”.

Emigration to the US didn’t change much. There were more Latinos (as in Latin America versus Spain, I inferred), more people of mixed race. Still not many Black people, as I still lived a middle-class life, now in suburbs, not ‘outskirts’, and the socioeconomic segregations seemed largely similar to what they were in the UK. I experienced largely benign, if irritating prejudice in middle school and (somewhat) into H.S. Peers teased my accent, stock British phrases which I didn’t use but had crossed the ocean via media (I blame PBS, Jane Austen, Benny Hill, The Royal Family, The Beatles. Thank God I got through school before Harry Potter!). I was unhatefully called a ‘limey’ sometimes—a reference, apparently, to Elizabethan era English sailors who, lacking vitamins when crossing oceans to conquer foreign lands, contracted scurvy and thus needed fruits like limes as a remedy.

“Okay,” I would say without interest when this was explained.

A genuinely upsetting experience happened in 9th grade, when I frequented a friend’s home that also attracted his sister’s friends, one of whom was a friendly, same-aged Black girl who went to a local school, not mine. She was pretty—had a lovely smile and her hair was curly, with Shirley Temple ringlets down about the base of her neck. Mostly she was charming, and as she hung around me and my friend a bit more than his sister, we bantered easily. I was careless, I think. Awkward as a teen for reasons that are beyond the scope of this entry, I’d say the wrong thing at times. I don’t believe that what I said to her was prejudiced, or racist. On the surface, at least, race didn’t seem relevant to the offense. Anyway, I’d said something, and thus on the third, or maybe fourth—and sadly, last—occasion this girl was in our company, she was morose and distant. I asked my friend what was up with her. According to him, she’d said one or two things to me that he deemed flirtatious, and I’d brushed her off.

I didn’t know what to do—what I wanted to do. Dealing with the feelings of girls, women was…hmm? Long story short: never saw her again. I’d like to share this memory with my friend, tell him that I’ve been thinking of this story as I read the DiAngelo book. It was and is relevant to our important subject, because among other things, what was somewhere in my mind the time that girl was in my company were the following assumptions: you (I) don’t have relationships with Black people. They live elsewhere, have different lives. They don’t like you, wouldn’t like you, much less want to be close to you. Was any of this conscious to my teenage mind? No. Robin DiAngelo, paraphrasing psychoanalysis, would likely argue that this doesn’t matter in so far as we have a responsibility to search our minds and upon that endeavor, to be honest. Fair enough.

By the way, I have a teasing question for my friend when we get together, about that fruit he’d given me the last time we saw each other: why was he giving me limes?

  • Actually, the entry “Don’t look at me” (August 2014) is centrally about race

 

Graeme Daniels, MFT

 

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Don’t Look At Me

*click on title for image

Recently, someone I know endured a traumatic episode—an assault—walking at night in the streets of Oakland, in the neighborhoods depicted in my two novels, Crystal From The Hills and The Situation. The victims were a middle-aged Caucasian pair on a night out, feeling a part of their community; empathetic, even celebrating of its diversity: of age, socioeconomics, gender orientation, race. On an unlit street a block or two away from a populated commercial districted, they approached a pair of youngish-looking black men, walking languidly in the opposite direction. The couple exchanged glances, but neither said a word. Through body language they consolidated a plan with a tacit underpinning: keep walking, don’t change direction; don’t convey to these young men a prejudice or fear based upon their age or race. Trust.
The plan backfired. Within ten yards of contact, the two men separated, moving to flanking positions on the sidewalk. The couple halted, realizing in an instant what was happening. One of the men pulled a firearm and calmly directed the couple to hand over their bag, while the other man stepped forward and reached into pockets, first those of the husband, then the pockets of his wife. The husband looked up, half-meeting the glance of the man groping around his body.
“Don’t look at me,” he said. “What are you looking at?”
“Sorry,” muttered the husband, immediately complying and looking away.
The man with the gun stepped forward, reaching out to the woman instead. With his free hand he grabbed her wrist, looking to snatch her bag which contained her cell phone, her wallet, identifications, plus an address at which the coupled lived.
“Let go,” he directed calmly, intimately.
The wife didn’t look at him. She wanted to speak instead, ask some of the following questions: do you have a mother? How could you do this? What is this about for you? Is it poverty? Don’t you realize we’re on your side? Don’t you know, or care, what a set-back this is, for Oakland, for relations between white people and black? She didn’t say any of this, of course. She cooperated, relinquishing her grip on her bag. While fearful still for hers and hers husband’s safety, or that of their home in El Cerrito, she was equally distraught over the psychological fall-out: the changes she foresaw in the aftermath of this violation. A minute later, the incident was over, and the couple, physically un-harmed, was soon talking to police, sharing their details. Meanwhile, the wife continued to ruminate: where was the empathy in this world? The civility?
Privately, I’ve thought of incidents like this in the context of writing my two companion novels, both of which—though especially the first, CFTH—depict life on the gritty streets of Oakland, where danger is presumed. Two of my characters, Chris Leavitt and Jill Evans, endure street assaults that are peripheral to the story’s main drama, but nonetheless endemic to the social milieu in which they live. These episodes are included for a few reasons, one of which is a realistic depiction of Oakland, though this is of secondary importance. Firstly, my novels are not so much realistic as surrealistic; they rely on subtext, the expression of fears which are as much felt experiences over a lifetime rather than emotions triggered by specific, present-day circumstances. Still, the characters, going about their lives, for the most part unconsciously, make implicit appeals for more civility in the world; more empathy.
The second novel, The Situation, provides meat to this theme in the form of Bryan “Weed” Tecco’s story. An absent—as in disappeared—character from CFTH, Weed’s actions and enigmatic motivation are the pretext of events in the first novel, now resurrected, like Weed himself, for the plot’s unfolding. Prior to Chris Leavitt’s dalliance with homelessness, likely psychosis, his absconding from work and home, he’d accompanied his similarly psychotic drug dealer/video game tester friend, “Weed”, on an unexplained road trip to the secretive village of Bolinas in West Marin, ostensibly to aid a getaway, but also, more quietly, to take possession of some corporate contraband. That road trip culminates in an accident involving their truck and a West Marin lake, during which Weed disappears, later presumed drowned.
Well, he hasn’t drowned, according to the first line of The Situation (BTW: contradicting the first line of CFTH—hopefully, the reader notices). He’s back and ready to explain himself and the meaning of that contraband, for anyone who will listen and care. The contraband is a set of flash drives, the files for a game entitled “The Situation”, designed by a programmer/quasi journalist, a Julian Assange-like figure, who wants to exploit the phenomenon of gaming popularity, and publish a game with unprecedented social purpose: the game, played at its highest levels, will reveal the whistleblower secrets of the US government as well as bastions of corporate America. While this parallels the secret-laden lives of Chris, Jill, and Weed, they are unknowingly embroiled in a chase for the missing drives; driven to be a part of something they don’t quite understand, but know is important.
Along the path of this mission, from the ill-fated drive to Bolinas, and throughout the events that unfold over the two books, characters experience events that trigger their various traumas, ambiguously calling for civility, empathy, amid the surface pursuit of survival. They do a lot of looking at one another, and a little more talking as time moves on, as therapists like me instruct. Within the drama that is about survival, then a nightmare; then a comeback, and finally a game, a shadowy character, a talisman of sorts, teaches about empathy, tells them they must learn to take risks, look into the souls of others, through the traditional window of eyes.
This fanciful lesson will compete with reality, I think. It is a story, a fantasy, but also a kind of prescription competing with other warnings.
Look at me.

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