Sunday, September 27, 2009

Are You Laughing With Me or At Me?

By Stephanie J. Gates

I am a movie aficionado, and even with HD flat screen TVs, surround sound and blue ray capabilities to bring the movie experience home, I still love going to the movie theater to kick back, relax and enjoy a movie. I love all kinds of movies (except horror) and I pretty much take them for what they’re worth, most often mindless escapist entertainment. But scenes from three movies I’ve watched recently makes me wonder who controls our image and if “the joke is indeed on us.”

I was watching The Proposal starring Sandra Bullock as a woman who forces her assistant to propose marriage, and what happens as a result of that. It’s a comedy so I naturally knew it was supposed to be funny. There’s a scene with the fiancĂ©’s grandmother played by Betty White as a half Indian, half white woman who encourages Bullock to get in touch with her higher self by engaging in an ancient ritual of some sort. They’re out in the woods, just the two of them and White’s character keeps encouraging Bullock to just let go. And the prim and proper high maintenance diva taps into her spiritual self by singing and dancing to Get Low and I’m laughing because the scene is funny, right?

You, know the stereotypical scene where a white person tries to dance like a black person only everyone knows white people can’t dance because they don’t have rhythm, so we laugh at them making fools of themselves because they laugh at themselves. So, I’m laughing because Sandra Bullock is trying to get in touch with herself and she’s making this spiritual connection by singing and dancing like a white girl to this nasty song, but then I stop laughing because I don’t know who I’m really laughing at: Sandra Bullock or a stereotype of myself?

This revelation made me think about two other movies that I’ve watched recently, and I am disturbed by some of the scenes that come back to me. In Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder, Robert Downey’s portrayal of an Australian playing a black man doesn’t bother me as much as the rapper and Tom Cruise’s characters who make me say, “Hey, wait a minute!” The rapper’s name is Alpa Chino (a take-off on Al Pacino) whose claim to fame is an empire of sexual explicitness including a song called I Love the P***y! and his products Booty Sweat energy drink and Bust A Nut energy bar. He was supposed to be this over the top character, but his character is more realistic than not of some rappers.

Tom Cruise is a studio executive, who dances off Get Back and Low, and like Sandra Bullock’s character, I was cracking up again at the trying-to-be-cool white person, but then I saw the mirror and it wasn’t as funny. It reminded me of being in school and laughing at the self-appointed class clown who then turns and plays a cruel joke an unsuspecting classmate, and the hee-haws turn to horror as the victim realizes what has happened.
To Stiller’s credit, he previewed Tropic Thunder to a group of African-American journalists and to members of the NAACP, according to Wikipedia and I guess they were OK with the film. It was also said on Wikipedia that Tom Cruise came up with the idea of his character dancing. I know that Tropic Thunder is a parody so I started thinking, how do you parody a parody? I admit, it’s a funny movie, but I couldn’t help thinking who was really being mocked, and how we decide when it’s offensive and when it’s not. When Ted Danson dressed up as a minstrel, it nearly ended his career, but we support real artists like the Alpa Chino character and tune into reality TV regularly to watch buffoonery. What gives?

In the beginning of the movie, He’s Not That Into You, an array of women are explaining how to tell when a guy isn’t interested, and they show women from all walks of life: in the mall, at the gym, out side etc. But then they also show three African women sitting outside their huts talking. To make matters worse, the women’s conversation is subtitled. To comfort her friend as to why the guy’s not calling, one of the women says, “Maybe he forgot your hut number.” And then her other friend laughs and says, “Or maybe he got eaten by a lion.” The African women were outside their hut while the Asian women were in the mall.

Later in the movie there are two overweight African-American women explaining how a man can make you believe the break-up was your idea when it was really his, and their solution is just go on and eat some ribs and some other kind of “black” food. There were a couple of plump white women in the movie, and we meet them in the park speed walking. The subliminal message of the movies is the same: we haven’t progressed. We’re still wild, savage, lazy people if you believe what you see on the screen.

I like to laugh as much as the next person and I’m not so serious that I can’t laugh at myself; my problem is the lack of balance. Why does it seem like we are we always the butt of the joke? And even more disturbing, is why are we ok with this buffoonery that continues to pass itself off as entertainment in its various forms?

When I was in high school, I went on a cruise and we when we were in the Bahamas the native people asked us where we were from and when we said Chicago, they made shooting gestures with their hands saying, “Gangster, gangster.” We were high school seniors, and it was 1980 and yet people from another country still saw as parts of the 1920s gangster image associated with Chicago.

Fast forward to the present, and hip-hop reigns, and the images of us from hip-hop and other media is projected world wide, and how do you think we’re viewed? What we see is a one-dimensional negative image of who we are as black people because the world sees us as one and the same. The worst of us represents the best of us and we see this played out daily even as a black man sits in this nation’s highest office. We are no more monolithic than any other group of people, but the reality is, is that we’re viewed as such.
Who controls our image? Taking into account the pervasive nature of the music in the movies mentioned, I was wondering who was I laughing at and who was laughing at me? Too much of hip-hop and reality TV is nothing more than mindless, lewd, violent representations of everything that’s wrong in the black community that disguises itself as entertainment, and we laugh.

I’m sure that there are people who’d argue that there’s no difference between the two, but I beg to differ. If I offer myself as the butt of the joke, I’m giving you permission to laugh along with me because I’ve agreed to take part, but when you put me out there without my consent, you’re laughing at me, and that’s not the same thing. I can appreciate self-deprecating humor from most anyone, but being sucker punched isn’t funny; it hurts.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Surrendering Power

One Saturday morning recently, I didn’t make it to Boot Camp so I decided to hit the track for a little jogging/walking combo (because what I do does not qualify as running) on a track near my house. It was the perfect weather for being outside with temperatures in the 70s on a cloudless, sun-filled day.

There was a group of three friends on the track; two women and one man—all in their mid to late 20s. One of the women’s cell phone rang and she fell back behind the other two. Because we were traveling at the same pace, and she was talking loudly I could hear her conversation; she was arguing with a guy, presumably her boyfriend, who had called her late the night before and she didn’t answer the phone because she was sleeping.

The conversation went on as we alternately passed each other on the track. When she first answered the phone she was angry that he had the audacity to question her whereabouts when he’d called so late, but as the conversation wore on, I could hear him wearing her down as her voice changed and she tried to convince him that she was home sleeping, then accepting defeat that she couldn’t. He eventually “let her off the hook” because her voice softened and became inaudible as her face matched the morning sun. She hung up and continued around the track.

For some reason, the conversation bothered me, and I wanted to say something but I was afraid. A conversation with a friend of mine about women giving up our power popped into my head, and I decided to take a risk and say something. When she came around the track again, I was off to the side doing some calisthenics so I stopped her. I told her I overheard her conversation, and that as a forty-something single, woman, I had done plenty of dating and I wanted to share with her something I’d learned. I told her not to surrender her power to a man. I told her if she didn’t want to talk to him because he waited until 11:00 o’clock to call her then that’s the way it should be. I agreed with her right to question why he had waited all day to call her if he wanted to spend time with her. I ended by telling her to decide what her expectations were and to stick to them. She looked at me, smiled and said thank you, and we both went on with our workouts. When she caught up with her girlfriend (the guy had left by then) she must have told her friend that I said something to her because I saw her pointing me out. It was weird for me at first, but I’m glad I did it. It doesn’t matter whether she takes my advice or not; what matters is I saw a sister in need and I reached out, and I felt better for doing so.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Other Side of the Plexiglass

I am Dorothy trying to find my way back to Kansas, only Kansas isn’t Kansas anymore. I have been thrust into the world of Plexiglass, and it ain’t nothing nice.
Plexiglass, the brand name for acrylic plastic, was first used in this country during World War II as a bullet-resistant glazing in war planes in our fight against the enemy. Today, the enemy is me.

Like the Jeffersons, we moved up—from the segregated west side of Chicago to the integrated (sort of) South side of the city known as Roseland. We had a shopping area two blocks from home. My niece, Rhonda, and I did not understand the significance of two little brown girls eating lunch at the Woolworth’s lunch counter. We just liked hopping up on the red swivel stools and enjoying our delicious, All-American lunch of cheeseburgers, fries and Coke. This was during the time when money actually changed hands. Roseland changed, too--but I wasn’t paying attention.

For a while I lived in Hyde Park, a multicultural Mecca and the answer (in theory anyway) to Rodney King’s “Can’t we all just get along?” Even in its congestion, it was still easy to breathe. When I moved back to Roseland, the first thing I noticed was the air. It is thick with misery--tight and wheezy, like an asthmatic.
I knew the yellow brick road had led me astray when I heard Roseland proudly referred to on the radio station as the Wild Hun’eds, and we do try to live up to our name sometimes. One day I am driving and I see a Do Not Enter sign with “fucking” in black magic marker wedged between not and enter. A couple of blocks away the arrow points in both directions on the One Way sign. Today I am a foreigner in a strange land. I am in it but not of it (I think) which makes daily life a surreal experience.

Not that I haven’t encountered plexiglass before, but lately I am perpetually perplexed by this proliferation of plastic. The friendly green and yellow BP sign is misleading. I am standing in line behind a woman awaiting my turn. The man of Middle Eastern descent pushes her change through the slit beneath the window and places her merchandise in the revolving door. She removes her things and asks, “Can I get a bag?”

“Put it in your pocket,” he replies.

“Man, give me a bag,” she says more forcefully.

He refuses, telling her again to put the stuff in her pocket.

She curses him and leaves.

I don’t know why I don’t leave, but I have not returned since that day. Scenarios like these are common.

Always on my way somewhere, I often eat on the run. One evening, I pull into a KFC drive-thru, place my order and pull up to pay for it, only to be greeted by a contraption entirely made of plexiglass. I think this is some kind of fluke until I stop at a Subway on a different night. The sandwich and their fixings are surrounded by this plastic shield that I have to shout through to place my order. Adding insult to injury, the employee tells me I have to pay 50 cents extra for banana peppers. They must be a delicacy in the ‘hood. I pass on the peppers, but not the sandwich.
When I stop at Wingz it Iz I know I am in for a plastic experience—the z’s instead of s’s are a dead give-away. Unlike Mr. BP, this man of Middle Eastern descent is nice, despite the double barrier buffer between us: plastic glass and a language barrier.

I stop at Walgreen’s to buy some Caress Body Wash and find it is locked behind plexiglass. This is done to prevent “shrink rate,” a Walgreen’s manager tells me when I inquire as to why some of the products are under lock and key. The “shrink rate” items vary from store to store. Even something as simple as buying stamps is done through a plastic portal at the U.S. post office.
Those behind the plexiglass believe they’re protected from those of us on the other side. My brain splits: I am not them, and they are not me, but strangely, we are one. I have come full circle, leaving segregation only to return to it in this city of plastic. I wonder what will happen if I close my eyes and click my heels together three times?