A Memo to Gatekeepers Regarding Whiteness

Bitter Gertrude is thrilled to host our first guest blogger ever, the brilliant Ming Peiffer! 

 

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Dear People In Positions Of Power,

When you decide to NOT produce a white artist’s work do NOT tell them it’s because they are white.

Using POC as scapegoats for why you can’t program a white artist’s work not only devalues the POC work you are (finally) giving a chance to see the light of day, BUT it also absolves you of your responsibility and complicity in creating an unfair media world that portrays the world as white and not how it actually is. You’re basically saying, “Normally this would be given to a white person but look where we are! We just can’t! Maybe the pendulum will swing back next season!” And you’re not paying attention to the fact that it “normally going to white person” is not normal at all. And is a prime example of systemic racism and systematic erasure of POC and “Other” voices. (It also signals to me that somewhere you believe this is a passing fad instead of real institutional change you are embedding.)

Moreover, it’s re-enforcing the false narrative that whites are not succeeding right now. C’mon. Look at the TV. Look at your seasons. Look at the rest of the country. Look at the president.

White people are doing fine.

It is certainly easier to blame a faceless POC than hurting the feelings of a white artist you have a relationship with but y’all need to pony up and take responsibility for the necessary and commendable changes you ARE making in your programming and explain to them that your definition of “worthy” work has expanded and that their work simply did not make the “worthy” list this year. And that your previous definition of “worthy” was racist. Was white.

DO NOT MAKE IT SEEM AS THOUGH DECISIONS WERE NOT RACE-BASED BEFORE.

They were race-based before, you just couldn’t see it.

Do the work people in power. You might have to have some hard conversations and disappoint some of your friends but it’s better than creating more animosity towards POC and spreading an abhorrently false narrative that their whiteness is what’s keeping them from success.

It’s hard to be honest but it will be worth it and everyone will make better work because of it.

 

mingpeiffer

Ming Peiffer is a playwright, screenwriter, and activist from Columbus, Ohio. Her play USUAL GIRLS will be produced at the Roundabout Underground as part of their 2018/19 Season. Her work has been developed and/or presented by New York Theatre Workshop, Roundabout Theatre Company, The Kennedy Center, Ensemble Studio Theater, HERE Arts Center, The Flea, The Wild Project, New Ohio, Soho Playhouse, The Gene Frankel Theater, C.O.W., Theater for the New City, FringeNYC, Horsetrade Theater, Yangtze Repertory, among others. Awards/Fellowships include: NYTW 2050 Fellowship, The Kennedy Center’s Paul Stephen Lim Playwriting Award Recipient (i wrote on ur wall and now i regret it), The Relentless Award Honorable Mention (USUAL GIRLS), The Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center NPC Finalist (USUAL GIRLS), Playwright’s Realm Fellowship Semi-Finalist, Princess Grace Award Semi-Finalist (i wrote on ur wall and now i regret it), Doric Wilson Independent Playwright Award Finalist. In TV/Film, Ming has been a staff writer at Netflix and Hulu, and is currently developing her own series with Color Force and F/X. Additionally, she is adapting Weike Wang’s “CHEMISTRY” into a film for Amazon and a comic book into a series for AMC.

More about Ming Peiffer here

(Top image courtesy of Creative Commons license CC.BY.3.0; bottom image provided by author)
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Mass Shooters: More MAGA Than Misunderstood

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March for Our Lives. March 24, Washington, DC. (Source: washingtonpost.com)

I’m deeply moved by the nationwide youth protests. The March for Our Lives was breathtaking for so many reasons, not the least of which was its diversity, seamlessly incorporating issues of gun violence from all over the nation.

But the adult backlash is an embarrassment. It’s a real-life Scooby-Doo episode, with unsavory adults shaking their fists at the heroic “meddling kids.” Adults have viciously disparaged, slandered, and even threatened the Parkland survivors. (Imagine what it must feel like to attack a teenager who survived an unspeakable tragedy and believe you’re the good guy.)

In addition to all these attacks, adults are placing the blame for these tragedies on the students themselves, claiming students could solve everything if they’d just be nicer to their fellow students. This is the core of the popular “walk up, not out” campaign, an adult backlash ideology that holds that students should not protest for better gun legislation but should instead be putting their energies into being nicer to their fellow students, since, the theory goes, oddball kids are all the next school shooter, and all they need is a smile!

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More powerful than sensible gun legislation, according to “walk up, not out” (image source: a jillion memes)

 

The idea that teenagers could solve mass shootings by just socializing with “social outcasts” is a dangerous fantasy. Mass shooters do not actually come from the ranks of bullied kids. Many mass shooters were bullies themselves, and a large percentage of them had abused girlfriends and/or wives prior to the shooting. “Walk up, not out” and the entire mythology around the “misunderstood loner” obscure a deeper, more troubling truth.

On February 5 (just days before the Parkland shooting), the Southern Poverty Law Center published an article called “The Alt-Right Is Killing People.” Almost a year prior, The Nation published a piece called “Why Does the Far Right Hold a Near-Monopoly on Political Violence?” There are numerous studies and articles covering the fact that, beginning in the mid-90s, most mass shootings and domestic terrorism have been carried out by white men aligned with the extreme right-wing.

Most white male mass shooters– and most mass shooters are white males– are not “misunderstood loners.” Instead, they’re coming specifically from a place of entitlement– the straight white male entitlement that is a core belief in current extreme right-wing ideology. 

There are, of course, instances of left-wing violence, but they are dwarfed by the much more numerous instances of right-wing violence. Elliot Rodger didn’t want a girl to “walk up” and talk to him– he had been convinced by the alt right “manosphere” that he was entitled to a sexually available girlfriend and that violence was a logical expression of the anger he felt at being “denied” that. There are alt right spaces dedicated to Rodger, calling him a “hero.” Dylann Roof believed he was entitled to an all-white nation. Jerad and Amanda Miller believed they were entitled to freedom from the “tyranny” of the Obama administration, seeing their murders as the start of a right wing “revolution,” as did Paul Ciancia. Even Chris Harper-Mercer, who was biracial and shot people who self-identified as “Christian,” was acting from a place of injured, unfulfilled entitlement, writing a manifesto that bemoaned the fact that he was a virgin alongside racist rants, while using the screen name “ironcross45” (a reference to Nazi Germany). He was identified a year before the shooting as a white supremacist by the US Government Accountability Office.

Much was made of Nikolas Cruz being mistakenly identified as a member of a white nationalist group, but whether he was a member or not, he posted selfies in a Trump MAGA hat, called white women who dated men of color “traitors,” and advocated for racist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic violence on social media.

The preponderance of evidence has shown that mass shooters have two things in common: they are “wound collectors” who obsess about the many ways the world has “wronged” them, and they have access to guns. These two combined are the reason most mass shooters now come from the ranks of the extreme right.

Since the founding of Fox News in the mid-90s, right-wing media has been spending billions of dollars and enormous effort to spread the idea that liberals, feminists, people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ people, “coastal elites,” and Muslims are the enemy, less than human. They stoke fear and hatred of these groups, falsely claiming fellow Americans are out to “destroy America,” “destroy our way of lives,” “destroy our values.” They foster wild conspiracy theories, even conspiracy theories they invented and thus know are wrong. They deliberately skew news coverage, reporting some stories and not others (here, here, here, here, here), and providing inaccurate commentary, all to foster fear and hatred of the left. Online and radio sources take this even further, outright defending– or even advocating for— violence against liberals.

This disinformation campaign has been alarmingly successful. Read the comments even on a relatively mainstream site like FoxNews and see for yourself. In fact, here’s one now, from the California math teacher I quoted in my last post:

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Most extreme right wing thinkers won’t become mass shooters, of course. But all mass shooters dehumanize their victims like Marcus F dehumanizes Democrats above, and most mass shooters in the US now express that dehumanization in terms they learned in extreme right-wing circles.

Conservative media and the extremist right-wing online sphere it spawned consistently, incessantly, tell people they are entitled to something that has been stolen from them by evil, “satan-infested” liberals.

You are entitled to this, conservative media trumpet to millions of people, and these bad people are the reason you don’t have it. Respect. A better job. A gun. All the guns. A submissive girlfriend. A nation full of submissive women. A nation where Black people know their place. An all-white neighborhood. An all-white nation. A nation that speaks English and only English. A nation where gay people never mention being gay and gratefully accept their place as second-class citizens. A nation where transgender people do not exist, at all. A nation where “male” and “female” are the only gender options, and “male” always comes first. An all-Christian nation with an Evangelical government.

You’re entitled to a straight, Christian, white male utopia, they say. You deserve it. It’s your cultural heritage. It’s your American birthright. It’s the way things always were, and THEY took it away from you, those inhuman creatures, those “satan infested scum bags.”

Then they make semi-automatic weapons available by the handful to anyone who wants one. A gun is easier to obtain in most areas of the US than a roll of stamps.

These aren’t misunderstood outcasts who can be saved by eating lunch with a pretty girl. These are violent, angry men who commit murder to express their outrage at being unable to control the people and the world around them– unable to make people accord them higher status as white men, unable to create an all-white, straight, cisgender, Christian world, unable to make women submissive and sexually available. Unable to live in the MAGA utopia they are told repeatedly by the extreme right wing they’re entitled to, but wrongfully prevented from achieving by evil feminists, Black Lives Matter, immigrants, Jews, Muslims, LGBTQ people, and “libtards.”

It’s important to note that we only call white male criminals “misunderstood outcasts.” Everyone else is a “thug” or a “terrorist.” We have created this elaborate mythology about the poor, misunderstood white male as part of our larger mythology about the primary importance of white men that permeates the entire culture, left and right.

But while this is an issue on both the right and the left, since the mid-90s, the right has been directly focused on rhetoric that both creates wound collectors and prevents sensible gun legislation. This has proven to be a deadly combination, made even more deadly by the recent campaign to discredit the fact-based media that could mitigate both.

The ability of extremists to convince millions of people that the truth is “fake news” and that unbiased journalists are “liars” is without question a toxic and extremely dangerous development. And while that is, without question, far more common on the right, existing even in the conservative mainstream, it does also exist on the extreme left. We must be vigilant whether the toxic rhetoric comes from the right or the left.

We need to rein in the dangerous extremes of propagandistic right-wing media that have infected the discourse of the nation, turned us against each other, and given rise to a populist movement that put an open racist and cyberbully in the White House. We must also ensure that this kind of fear-mongering propaganda on the left is never allowed to make it to the mainstream as it has on the right.

And we must, we must, we must have more sensible gun legislation. The right has whipped its followers into a frenzy of fear that makes them terrified of any change to current gun laws. I’ve seen multiple gun owners call gun ownership a “God-given right,” as if the 2008 DC v. Heller SCOTUS decision is God. It wasn’t the second amendment that made it possible for private owners to have guns; it was Antonin Scalia. And since that decision, gun deaths have increased in the US 17%. We must have more sensible gun laws in this country that more accurately reflect the second amendment and Scalia’s own 2008 decision that allowed for sensible restrictions rather than reflect the NRA’s desire to protect the interests of gun manufacturers.

We’re not going to end mass shootings in a day. Shifting the culture takes time. But we must try.

And if we fail, I do know this: this next generation, this glorious generation of fierce feminists, of queer brilliance, this generation that is the most racially and ethnically diverse generation of any culture in human history, this generation of vision and ferocity and strength and fearlessness, is going to succeed where we failed.

About ten million people in the most diverse generation in human history will become old enough to vote before November 2020. Behold your future:

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(Source: Shawn Thew/EPA, abcnews.com)

I cannot fucking wait.

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I’m a Teacher. Please Don’t Give Us Guns.

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Emma González. Source: cnn.com

Listen, you and I both know that conservatives squawking about wanting to arm teachers have no intention of doing so. They refuse to pay for pencils, desks, adequate pay, building maintenance, or updated textbooks, so there’s no chance they’re allocating the funding to buy us all Glocks.

Recognizing this, Trump has floated the idea of issuing concealed carry licenses for teachers. This is a breathtakingly bad idea. Teachers carrying guns means students shot out of anger. How do I know? Because humans carrying guns means humans shot out of anger. And how do I know that? It happens in the US every single day of our lives. Almost all shootings are between people who know each other, and happen in the heat of the moment because a gun was readily available.

Who gets shot most often when an armed government employee confronts an unarmed teenager? Get ready for this headline at least once a month: “White Teacher Shoots Black Student; Says He ‘Felt Threatened.'”

As a teacher married to a teacher, I am always reluctant to point out the foolishness of my fellow educators. Most of us are working very hard for very little money and even less respect. And yet, I cannot pretend that teachers like this do not exist:

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It took me just a few moments to connect this commenter to his teacher page on the website of his southern California public high school, in a city with 30% registered Democrats and 39% registered Republicans. Given the progressive bent of modern high school students, it’s a safe bet that this guy’s California classroom is at least half “satan infested scum” on a daily basis. Are you certain you want this math teacher, who not only openly despises half his students as Satanic scum, but feels perfectly fine stating so in a public forum, given the right to carry a firearm in the classroom?  Someone who believes half of America’s youth are “satan infested” but Donald J. Trump is “Godly” is so far removed from reality I would hesitate allowing him a sharpened pencil. We want to allow this man to carry a deadly weapon into the classroom?

While delusional, angry conservatives are thankfully rare in the teaching profession, they are not nonexistent. Nor are liberal teachers with short tempers, for that matter. Nor are clumsy teachers, or teachers with poor vision, or teachers who are easily flustered, because teachers are human beings. We are trained to educate others in specific academic disciplines. We are not trained armed guards. Even if we were, many schools (and other sites) that have experienced mass shootings have had armed guards or police on site. If a trained, experienced police officer can’t stop a shooter from killing people, what makes you think a Language Arts teacher can?

How would police arriving on scene be able to distinguish between a “bad guy” shooting into a crowd of running, screaming students and a “good guy” shooting into a crowd of running, screaming students? How many more innocent lives would be taken by an inexperienced teacher taking ill-advised shots? An active crime scene does not look like it does in the movies. The bad guy doesn’t stand there, in the open, monologuing, while everyone stands aside to give you a clear shot. It’s chaos. Professional law enforcement officers who are expert marksmen hit their target during an active shooter situation 18% of the time and sometimes hit innocent bystanders, but you expect Ms. Reynolds in Room 8 to take out an active shooter without accidentally killing students?

While we have far too many mass shootings, we have even more individual shootings. The presence of a gun greatly increases the likelihood of an innocent person getting shot, which seems painfully obvious, yet somehow still fought by gun nuts. Most of us have not been in a mass shooting situation, but all of us have seen a student piss off an overworked, frazzled teacher. Every teacher knows at least one colleague who has been threatened in their classroom by a student or parent.

We have ample evidence to demonstrate that angry, frazzled, or frightened people in power shoot young Black people and Native American people at alarmingly high rates. Black people are routinely shot when they are doing nothing more threatening than riding as a passenger in a car, playing with a toy, holding a cell phone, or walking down the street. Black and Native American people are shot when they are running away (see also this), complying with an officer’s orders, or sitting with their hands up. Black children are shot sleeping.

What about Black teachers? There are numerous Black people in the teaching profession. While Caucasians are quick to defend Caucasians who shoot a person of color, they are filled with rage and calls for retribution when a person of color shoots a white person, even accidentally. Are we going to arm Black teachers and defend them when they shoot innocent students the way we defend white police officers who shoot innocent citizens? Are we going to defend a Black teacher who shoots a white student because she “felt threatened”? Or even when she’s actually threatened by a student or parent?

And how many gun-toting teachers will shoot the woman who rejects them in the heat of the moment? Women are attacked or killed for rejecting men every single day. Are you ready for “Math Teacher Shoots Sophomore Who Rejected His Advances, Threatened to Tell Principal, Wife”?

There are many solid reasons not to arm faculty, but there are none more solid than this: students want fewer guns in their schools (and in their streets, and in their lives, and in their nation) and they’re not going to stop until they get exactly that.

Those fiery, witty, brilliant Marjory Stoneman Douglas students, who responded to their personal tragedy by setting the nation ablaze with their fierce activism? Those students are not at all unusual. Emma González, with her shaved head and her historic “we call BS” speech? Half my girls are like that. What gives these kids the guts, grit, and strength to put themselves out there, open themselves to the relentless harassment, death threats, and smear campaigns by gun-loving adults, is that they know this, too. They know there’s an entire generation behind them, they know that Black teens have been advocating for gun control for years (and received even worse harassment and threats), they know that their generation will swiftly outnumber us, and, as digital natives, they can organize more quickly and effectively than we can. We clutch our pearls complaining about teenagers and cell phones while those teenagers use those cell phones as hammers to reshape our world.

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Emma González will be old enough to vote in 2020, and so will my students. “Libtards” aren’t coming for your guns under this extreme right wing administration, but Emma González and an entire generation of fierce, pissed off youngsters certainly will be soon enough. Soon enough those kids, in all their diversity and fierceness and lack of interest in your “BS,” will outnumber us. Soon enough the Senate and the House will be filled with those kids. Someone like Emma González– if not González herself, because DAMN– will be sitting in the White House. You think these kids are entitled, selfish, whiny snowflakes who need safe spaces, yet they are already demonstrating how much braver, how much bolder, how much tougher they are than we ever were. Compare adults who need a gun to feel safe, who need to pretend these kids are “crisis actors” in order to feel safe, who need to pretend young Black activists are “thugs” in order to feel safe, to González, and Cameron Kasky, and Sarah Chadwick, and David Hogg and Maxine Wint, and all the kids who continue to speak out, organize, and protest despite relentless harassment and death threats from adults.

I’m a teacher. If you want students to be safe at school, giving us guns will achieve the exact opposite. President González will just recall them all in 20 years anyway.

 

 

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We Have Seen the Enemy

 

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This is America. (Source: amreading.com)

Another school shooting means yet another young white man who has been radicalized by extremist right-wing thought and convinced that murder is the answer. Nearly every one of these domestic terrorists is white, male, and connected to the alt right, red pillersIncel, MGTOW, MRA, or PUA, groups that specialize in wound collecting, in blaming women, people of color, Muslims, and LGBTQ people for every difficulty, real or imagined, urged on by the larger right wing that now thrives on hatred of these groups. Although the right wing at large is still pretending offense at being called “racist” or being called out for abandoning civil rights, their every decision belies that, their every decision is designed to marginalize anyone who is not white, male, cishet, Christian.

The right wing at large, having lost sight of its principles, having gorged itself on propagandistic media that labels any American to the left of Ted Cruz the enemy, feeds this wolf at their door, and we all see it– WE ALL SEE IT– yet they continue to pretend it’s not happening. They hold the highest positions of power in our government while they feed these wolves, they remove roadblocks to getting them weapons while they give the subsequent dead nothing but their “thoughts and prayers.” They, in short, are training and arming young men to fight a war against diversity.

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This is America.  (Source: Chicago Daily Herald)

They will not win. As desperately as they’re fighting, as bad as the gerrymandering that keeps them in power (for now) is, we outnumber them, and this rising generation, this beautiful, magnificent, historically diverse rising generation, is going to yank this nation forward. Is already yanking this nation forward.

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This is America.  (Source for top photo: outinsa.com; source for bottom photo: towelroad.com)

Angry white men: We are not your enemy. We are America. You cannot stop the rising generation from being browner, queerer, & more fierce than we were. No matter how many young white men you convince the world has wronged them & the answer is murder, YOU CANNOT STOP THE FUTURE. It’s already here.

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This is America.  (Source: Atlanta Black Star)

I’ll leave you with some poetry, because art heals. Here is Elisa Chavez‘s great poem, “Revenge,” written in November 2016.

 

Since you mention it, I think I will start that race war.

I could’ve swung either way? But now I’m definitely spending
the next 4 years converting your daughters to lesbianism;
I’m gonna eat all your guns. Swallow them lock stock and barrel
and spit bullet casings onto the dinner table;

I’ll give birth to an army of mixed-race babies.
With fathers from every continent and genders to outnumber the stars,
my legion of multiracial babies will be intersectional as fuck
and your swastikas will not be enough to save you,

because real talk, you didn’t stop the future from coming.
You just delayed our coronation.
We have the same deviant haircuts we had yesterday;
we are still getting gay-married like nobody’s business
because it’s still nobody’s business;
there’s a Muslim kid in Kansas who has already written the schematic
for the robot that will steal your job in manufacturing,
and that robot? Will also be gay, so get used to it:

we didn’t manifest the mountain by speaking its name,
the buildings here are not on your side just because
you make them spray-painted accomplices.
These walls do not have genders and they all think you suck.
Even the earth found common cause with us
the way you trample us both,

oh yeah: there will be signs, and rainbow-colored drum circles,
and folks arguing ideology until even I want to punch them
but I won’t, because they’re my family,
in that blood-of-the-covenant sense.
If you’ve never loved someone like that
you cannot outwaltz us, we have all the good dancers anyway.

I’ll confess I don’t know if I’m alive right now;
I haven’t heard my heart beat in days,
I keep holding my breath for the moment the plane goes down
and I have to save enough oxygen to get my friends through.
But I finally found the argument against suicide and it’s us.
We’re the effigies that haunt America’s nights harder
the longer they spend burning us,
we are scaring the shit out of people by spreading,
by refusing to die: what are we but a fire?
We know everything we do is so the kids after us
will be able to follow something towards safety;
what can I call us but lighthouse,

of course I’m terrified. Of course I’m a shroud.
And of course it’s not fair but rest assured,
anxious America, you brought your fists to a glitter fight.
This is a taco truck rally and all you have is cole slaw.
You cannot deport our minds; we won’t
hold funerals for our potential. We have always been
what makes America great.

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Juanito Bandito: Wholesome Family Racism

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TJ Davis as Juanito Bandito in a PR shot from Who Shot Juanito Bandito? (Source: The Pickleville Playhouse)

I’m old enough to remember Frito Bandito. I was a preschooler but I remember it well. He was a racist stereotype– a Mexican “bandito” character always trying to steal Fritos. When the National Mexican-American Anti-Defamation Committee complained about the racism, the Frito-Lay Company (then, as now, owned by PepsiCo) first tried (obviously unsuccesfully) to tone down the racism, then, when complaints continued, retired the character completely. The entire lifespan of the character was just four years, ending in 1971. When told by Latinxs that the character was racist, Frito-Lay responded by retiring the character.

That was 47 years ago. Today, in 2018, a young white man named TJ Davis is performing a character he has named “Juanito Bandito,” and his response to being told by Latinx people that the character is racist? Telling them they’re wrong.

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TJ Davis. (Source: teejdavis.com)

The blond-haired, blue-eyed Davis writes and performs the Juanito Bandito musical comedies, in which he wears a black wig and a big, stereotypical black mustache, puts on an exaggerated Latinx accent, and performs as a character whose name is so close to “Frito Bandito” it’s impossible not to call it– and the longstanding racist faux-Mexican “bandito” character for which both are named– to mind. The word “bandito” is Spanglish, an Anglicization of the Spanish word “bandido.” “Bandito” specifically refers to a Mexican bandit, a racist stereotype popularized by generations of western films and television shows.

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A PR shot from Who Shot Juanito Bandito? (Source: The Utah Standard-Examiner)

A Latinx theatre artist, Jazmyn Arroyo, privately contacted Davis to express concerns about the racism inherent in such a performance. Instead of responding to her privately, Davis published her email without consent on his blog and made an embarrassing attempt to excuse his character with every timeworn argument you’ve all seen a million times from white people called out for racism. When that post received exactly the reception you would imagine, Davis took it down and replaced it with the huffy insistence that “Juanito Bandito” is “Spanish (from Spain)” and adds the contradictory claim that “JB is not a stereotype of any race or culture.”

Davis’s entire 940-word original response, as well as the shorter replacement, all boil down to “You’re wrong. It’s not racist,” which is an incredibly common response from white people confronted with their own racism. In his initial blog post, Davis hits every common trope of white fragility, from the old classic, “You’re just taking this wrong way” to new favorites like “Racism exists and is terrible, but this is totally not racism.” He works in some whitesplaining, claiming that the accent isn’t racist (“There’s something about hearing familiar words or phrases spoken in a different, not grammatically correct manner that really tickles our funny bone”) and trying to show the difference– to a theatre professional, mind you– between “stereotype” and “character”:

The Bandito productions have nothing to do with race or nationalities.  An intelligent person who has attended any of the shows would agree that Bandito does not “get laughs by perpetuating negative stereotypes.”  Bandito is not a stereotype.  He’s a character.  One that I identify with quite deeply.  He’s serious, he’s silly, he’s mean, he’s kind, he’s arrogant, he’s self-conscious, he sings, he dances, … he even raps!  He’s not a stereotype of ANY race or nationality.

……… “he even raps!”

Of course, he also includes the familiar “I have Latinx friends and they’ve never complained.”

The point here is that he’s exhibiting racism while trying to prove he’s not racist. A Latinx person tells him that his portrayal of Latinx people is hurtful to Latinx people, and his response is, “You’re wrong.” Davis is claiming he knows better than Latinxs do what does and does not hurt them. That level of paternalism is only possible if you truly believe you are in some way superior– smarter, more insightful, more knowledgeable. When a child fears a haircut will hurt, as adults we feel comfortable telling them it will not. When a Latinx adult tells you something hurts, what makes you feel comfortable telling them it does not?

Despite his protestations, it’s hard to imagine that Davis, in the ten years he’s been playing this character, has been so far removed from his own American culture that he has no idea what “bandito” refers to, particularly considering that he often bills Juanito Bandito as an “outlaw” and an “infamous villain.” It’s hard to imagine anyone living to adulthood in the United States without being aware of the racism inherent in the “bandito” stereotype. It’s hard to imagine any adult believing that just saying “Spanish (from Spain)” can eliminate the meaning of the word “bandito” or the generations of racist mockery of Latinx people through exaggerated accents and fake mustaches.

It’s hard to imagine because the racism in Davis’ shows does not stop at the Juanito Bandito character.

Take a look at this poster for Davis’ 2015 show, Juanito Bandito in the One with the Monkey. Look carefully at the “monkey” character on the right. Look at the wig the white actor playing “Chester the Monkey” is wearing.

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If you would like to see more of this character and the very human Black braids he’s wearing, he’s featured in this promo video for the show. Here’s a synopsis of the show from a review by the Utah Theatre Bloggers Association:

The story focuses on Juanito’s desire to transition from a Western gunslinger to a high-profile rapper. Unfortunately, he realizes that most rappers have already made the change from criminal to musical artist, so instead of falling into the ever-growing sea of non-originality, Juanito decides he needs a shtick. So, naturally, he finds a dancing monkey.

A dancing monkey played by a white man in Black braids, meant to provide credibility to a “bandito” rapper played by a white man, in a show that states that most rappers were once criminals IS AS RACIST AS RACIST GETS.

Davis defends the obvious racism of Juanito Bandito as “wholesome family fun.” In inimitable American fashion, you can be shockingly racist, but you still qualify as “wholesome family fun” if you don’t say “fuck” or acknowledge the existence of LGBTQ people. If you want to see some of this “wholesome family fun” for yourself, there are plenty of videos on YouTube.

I don’t doubt that TJ Davis considers himself a good guy, and thinks he’s not racist. He did his LDS mission in Guatemala and no doubt met people there he still considers friends. But nothing changes the fact that these shows are racist.

TJ Davis, you have every right to write and perform racist shows. Racist speech is still protected by the First Amendment. But own the racism. Don’t tell Latinx people they’re wrong about what Latinx people find hurtful. Tell them the truth: You’re making money so you don’t care if the cash cow is racist.

But if you do care– if you don’t want to perform racism– then don’t perform racism.  You could retire Juanito Bandito and let him rest in obscurity with his near-namesake, Frito Bandito. You already have a following and a venue; you could write a new show without any racist characters in it and a new starring role for yourself. But whatever you do, please start listening to people of color. It is difficult and frightening to speak out about racism because the response is so often like yours– rejecting, arrogant, condescending, oblivious. White supremacy is fighting hard against diversity and equity in America right now. People are suffering and dying over these issues. The very least you can do is listen.

 

 

 

 

 

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Why Didn’t She Just Say No To Aziz Ansari?

 

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The internet is blowing up with speculation about the Aziz Ansari allegation posted in Babe. People are desperately seeking to define it. Was it sexual assault? Was it not? The thinkpieces are already rolling out. People are boiling over with excitement to lay some of the blame on the young woman, Grace, for not rejecting Ansari forcefully enough. I’m seeing reasonable people somehow imagining that a 22-year-old woman could gather her resolve, push aside all her cultural training, and tell an older, wealthy celebrity, in no uncertain terms, NO.

I say “push aside all her cultural training” because women in our culture are trained from birth that men are fragile, emotional creatures who cannot withstand the slightest discomfort or rejection from women, and men prove that to us over and over and over.

How, you ask?

Like this:

These Fourteen Women Were Brutally Attacked for Rejecting Men

Nearly Half of All Murdered Women Are Killed By Romantic Partners

Black Woman Attacked, Beaten Unconscious After Rejecting Man’s Advances

Rejecting Men Has Deadly Consequences

Woman Beaten After Rejecting Man’s Advances

Man Strangles and Kills Teenager for Rejecting his Marriage Proposal

11 Black Women Who Were Killed for Saying “No”

#YesAllWomen: A Short Fuse Between Rejection and Violence

Young Mum Battered in Nightclub After Rejecting Thug’s Advances

NYC Man Who Attacked Asian Women Blamed Them for Rejecting Him

When Women Refuse

Man Confesses to Killing Woman Who Didn’t Want to Date Him

Man Viciously Attacks Woman for Refusing to Give Him Her Number

Female Tourist, 60, Repeatedly Punched in the Face After Rejecting Sexual Advances

Female Comic Brutally Beaten After Rejecting Men’s Advances

Irish Woman Beaten and Left in French Street for Rejecting Advances

When Men Attack the Women Who Reject Them: Terrifying Accounts from Their Victims

Pregnant Woman Slammed on the Ground, Stabbed, After Rejecting Man’s Advances

This Is What Happens When Women Reject Men Online

Man Sexually Assaulted Woman After Kiss Rejection

People are defending Ansari for not being able to “read her mind,” but completely miss the fact that she could not likewise read his. Women are attacked every single day for rejecting men. How was she to know if Ansari was going to be gracious or shout profanities at her, push her to the floor, spit on her, or kick her (literally) out of his apartment? I’ve had all that (and more) done to me as a young woman by men. Did every man I encounter do that to me? No. Was I able to know, in advance, who would push me violently and who would walk away? Also no, especially not on a first date.

Women are attacked every single day for rejecting men. For every story that makes the news, there are a thousand you’ve never heard of. It’s not just obvious douchebags or “men like that” (whatever “that” is). Women are attacked by men who are “nice guys.” Women are attacked by men who swear publicly they would never hit a woman. Women are attacked by men who are wealthy professionals. Women are attacked by older gentlemen. Women are attacked by celebrities.

I could not be less interested in Aziz Ansari and young Grace. This is just celebrity gossip unless we’re using this one story as an example of several larger issues that must be addressed in our culture.

  1. Men attack women for rejecting them so often that woman are terrified of rejecting them. This is a problem in a world where clear, enthusiastic consent is a must.
  2. You must get clear, enthusiastic consent before you put your hands on somebody. That burden is on the active party, not the passive one. The active party could be male, female, or nonbinary. If you’re going to put your hands on someone, it’s your job to get consent, not their job to stop you mid-grab and say no.

Let’s stop this victim-blaming nonsense. Women have every reason to fear giving that clear, unequivocal, forceful NO you’re all blaming Grace for failing to give. You put us in a no-win situation. If we fail to say no, we end up forced to do things we don’t want to do when you’re too inept and/or selfish to get clear consent. If we do say no, a large percentage of you attack us, and we have no way of knowing in advance.

Stop attacking women who reject you. Give us no reason to fear saying NO.

UPDATE: This piece from KatyKatiKate, “not that bad,” is well worth your time.

 

 

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Robert Brustein Doesn’t Understand Consent: The Dangers of the White Male “Genius”

As a very young woman, I haunted thrift stores, which, in those days, were chock full of amazing finds. Thrift store book sections filled my library, and I would buy anything related to theatre and devour it to supplement the reading I was doing in my theatre classes. Eventually, a slow, sinking realization started creeping in at the edges as I read book after book by theatrical “geniuses,” all white men. I remember paging through Robert Brustein’s Theatre of Revolt thinking, He does not consider women people. 

Many woman in theatre will recognize this feeling. It’s the same feeling we get reading Jan Kott, Harold Bloom, and a host of other “geniuses.” These 20th century white male “geniuses” write about theatre as if women are invisible, decorative, or existing in service to men. They interpret female characters through the lens of white male dominance, and see female characters as essentially about the men in the play. Jan Kott, for example, writes that Desdemona must have “something of a slut about her” because so many men are attracted to her, a complete misreading of the text.  Bloom’s sexism, racism, and classism (“capital is necessary for the cultivation of aesthetic values”) are well documented; he believes that “isms” (examples he gives include feminism, African American studies, and “transgenderism”) are ruining literature. Brustein dismisses Nora in A Doll’s House in Theatre of Revolt because he believes her “conversion” from a “protected, almost infantile dependent” to an “articulate and determined spokesman for individual freedom” is unbelievable, missing entirely that the “infantile dependent” was a character Nora played for Torvald. He was unable to see past that character because he was as taken in by it as Torvald is. When she finally drops the act, both Torvald and Brustein are surprised and disbelieving. White male genius under white male supremacy is all too often hobbled by its inability to see past its privilege and understand that its reasoning is faulty.

Theatre education is still dominated by old white men of a single generation. Bloom is 87. Brustein is 90. Kott would be 103 if he were still alive. Grotowski would be 84. Brockett would be 94. Johnstone is 84. Brook is 92. I could go on and on. It’s not that old white men have nothing of value to contribute. These men have had valuable, positive impacts on our field. Yet we must also admit that several of these men have also, simultaneously, had problematic impacts on our field. Decades of theatre students have been taught dramatic theory and criticism that has been narrowed and hobbled by its belief in white male supremacy. We were taught theatre criticism that took it as read that theatre was by, for, and about white men, and that everything else required an adjective– “feminist theatre,” “Black theatre”– and was relegated to the margins, often literally, pushed to a sidebar in a book while the main body of the work got on examining “real theatre”– theatre by, for, and about white men. We were told to “look past” the sexism and racism, that it was just “the time,” as if the sexism and racism are croutons we can pick out of work that is otherwise genius, as if the sexism and racism don’t dramatically limit the scope and understanding of parts of the work.

We have formed the very basis of theatre criticism on white male supremacy, teaching decades of students that white male-centered criticism is the backbone of the field and that anything else is a specialization, an extra. We teach this to the students who grow up to run our industry, and then we wonder why they hire so few women and people of color to positions of power, then we wonder why granting orgs give most of their money to theatres headed by white men, then we wonder why major publications hire mostly white male theatre writers and editors, then we wonder why universities hire more men than women and more white people than people of color for tenure-track positions.

Then we wonder why Robert Brustein, one of the most powerful and influential members of our field, goes on Facebook and posts garbage like this:

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We wonder why someone whom we consider a “genius” has so little understanding of the basics of consent. We wonder why someone whom we consider a “genius” has so little understanding or respect for women as people.

Every word he’s ever written was framed within the idea that white men were the pinnacle of creation, standing at the center of all narrative and all analysis. Do we really wonder, then, why he doesn’t understand the difference between sexual harassment and an extramarital affair? And do we really wonder why there are people in our industry actually defending this nonsense?

The statement itself is a mess. He begins by whining about the way evil women are ruining the legacies of the men who harassed and raped them, imagining that women are unfairly “proscribing the achievements” of these great men.

Then he brings up the witch hunts. This analogy, usually coming from men accused of sexual harassment (or about to be), has become the most tiresome cliché of the moment, deeply sexist and utterly inaccurate. Brustein, however, takes this misunderstanding even further. He begins with the fact that women burned at the stake for witchcraft were innocent victims, but then goes on to claim that, in the sexual assault allegations of today, “the witches are doing the hunting,” clearly stating that innocent men are being accused and destroyed, and that evil women are to blame.

I don’t believe he actually meant what he wrote when he wrote it initially. I’ve read Brustein, and I believe he lit upon what he thought was a clever turn of phrase and used it without thinking too deeply about what it might actually mean. When he was rightly called out for it, he deleted it. Ah, we all thought, he’s showing glimmers of understanding. Then he quickly added it back in.

The painful “witches” comment almost overshadows the faulty reasoning of the rest. He rails against imaginary people who are demanding we stop reading Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Plato. He rails against imaginary people who would raze the Presidential libraries of Clinton and Kennedy and replace them with placards stating, “These men had extramarital affairs.”

The fact that he cannot distinguish between sexual assault and consensual extramarital affairs is the heart of the post. It encapsulates Brustein and his sociohistorical context perfectly. Though he pays lip service to the need for sexual predators to be punished, he worries primarily about the experience of the man. Female consent is immaterial, as he hysterically imagines men ruined for consensual affairs as a logical outcome of exposing sexual predators. The distance between a consensual affair and a rape are not material to him, and in all cases, the legacy of the man is more important. Sexual predators “should be punished,” but “let’s not forget the difference between private behavior and public achievement.”

You cannot decouple “private behavior” from “public achievement” because both come from the same world view. Despite Brustein’s hysteria, no one is suggesting we destroy all existing work by men. We must, however, provide appropriate context for that work.

Brustein’s silly Facebook statement represents something much larger– a limited understanding of the world that informs a great deal of the critical writing of a number of white male “geniuses” of his generation. No one is suggesting we should stop teaching the critical writing of 20th century white men, but it needs to be decentered and contextualized. Teaching young men they are rightly centered in all narrative considerations has created a culture from which we are struggling to emerge.

White men in positions of power unconsciously apply different criteria to evaluating white men (and white male characters) than they do women and people of color. They promote young white men with little experience on their “promise” and reject women and people of color as “not ready.” They dismiss female characters as “unlikeable” and worry about whether characters of color are “ethnic enough.” Whenever I speak out about the overrepresentation of men in tenure-track positions, multiple men tell me that I’m wrong because they’ve “lost” positions to women, as if their anecdotal experience of the world is definitive despite the data. This reflects exactly what we teach when we teach critics like Brustein and Bloom without context– that the male experience of the world is the definitive experience of the world, that all narrative is understood by placing a man at the center and relating everything and everyone else back to him.

Worrying about preserving the legacy of abusive men is foolish. We already knew the work of these men is flawed by the same sexism that led them to choose sexual assault. We must stop pretending that this is “important,” “genius,” “canonical” thought and instead appropriately contextualize it within its time and place in conversation with the thought of women and people of color. I see the way this new generation of women and people of color in education are approaching the work, and I want to cry with relief. We need more, and more, and more. We must move women and people of color out of the sidebar and into the canon, and demolish the concept of the privileged white male “genius.”

 

 

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Why So Many Men Hate the Last Jedi But Can’t Agree on Why

 

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Carrie Fisher and her daughter, Billie Lourd, as General Leia and Lieutenant Connix, in a PR shot for The Last Jedi taken by Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair

NOTE: Many spoilers.

My feed (and yours, I presume) has been filling with people, mostly men, denouncing The Last Jedi for all sorts of reasons. Here are a few I compiled out of my own feed over the past week:

It’s too draggy and long
It’s too fast-paced
It is magically both draggy and fast-paced
It’s too much about one family
It’s not about family
The plot is terrible
The plot is fine but the acting is terrible
The plot and acting are fine, but the pacing is terrible
The plot, acting, and pacing are fine but the characterizations are terrible
It needed more humor
It needed less humor
It needed a different kind of humor
Not enough character development
Too much character development
The stakes were too low
The stakes were too high
It’s too much like the original trilogy
It’s not enough like the original trilogy

Hm.

Usually, when a film is genuinely bad, we’re all in agreement about at least a few areas of obvious badness. There’s not much controversy about the general awfulness of Jar Jar, Hayden Christiansen’s acting, or the wooden love scene dialogue of the prequels. Sure, there’s the occasional outlier insisting they love Jar Jar, but on the main, these are obvious, agreed-upon flaws. Yet there’s no agreement about The Last Jedi. Instead, I’ve seen dozens of contradictory opinions, and at least half of them are stated like this:

“I’m fine with female-driven films, but I just hate this particular one for reasons.”

The Last Jedi has become the Hillary Clinton of filmmaking.

Yes, WE ALL KNOW YOU HAVE REASONS. So many reasons, all of which were no problem when they were part of male-driven films, but are now somehow egregious, film-ruining faults. And yes, we know you all know a real, actual human female who ALSO TOO did not like TLJ so HOW COULD THIS POSSIBLY BE ABOUT GENDER EVER QED.

It’s about gender.

And, because these issues are intersectional, it’s also about race. Here’s why so many men hate The Last Jedi and– not coincidentally– why I love it.

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Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico in The Last Jedi

ROSE TICO. Kelly Marie Tran, the actress who plays Rose Tico, has been harassed and threatened by angry internet men, so this seems like an obvious place to start. What do so many men hate and fear about Rose Tico? In short, Rose Tico is played by a woman of color and isn’t constructed solely to please the men in the audience. She wears practical work clothes, not Hollywood’s version of “practical work clothes” for women (skin-tight coveralls with a low-cut top). The camera didn’t linger over her ass as she bent over; she doesn’t suggestively hold her tools. She’s not presented as women are usually presented– from the straight male characters’ point of view, as a proxy for the straight male audience members’ point of view. Forthright, awkward, brilliant Rose Tico is presented as a real, well-rounded person exactly the way we portray male characters. For a woman of color in a mainstream film, this is remarkable.

MORE ROSE TICO. Because she wasn’t shown through Finn’s point of view, the subplot didn’t then become about Finn trying to “win” her, making it feel pointless to people who see a male/female pairing and expect that dynamic. Instead of seeing it as “buddies race against the clock while facing impossible odds,” a very common trope even just in Star Wars films alone (GET THAT SHIELD DOWN), they saw it as a pointless diversion. If Rose had been a male character, this subplot would have gone as unremarked as every other time it’s been used in decades of filmmaking. Because she’s a woman who isn’t presented as an event in the life of a man, she’s everything from a flaw in the filmmaking to an affront to fragile masculinity.

EVEN MORE ROSE TICO. When Rose declares her love for Finn, people complained because it wasn’t presented the way we have come to expect– telegraphed through presenting the female character as the object of male desire. Because she wasn’t objectified through Finn’s admiring gaze, their relationship has been criticized for “lack of sexual tension” and a “lack of chemistry.” If he had been chasing her throughout the film, her declaration of love would have fit neatly into the sexist trope of men “winning” women. Instead, her declaration of love comes as a surprise, but this, again, is an extremely common trope in filmmaking– when the declaration comes from a man. If the sudden declaration of love had come from Finn, it would have passed as unremarked as it has been in literally thousands of films.

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Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) with her first officer (Hugh Skinner)

VICE ADMIRAL HOLDO. There’s nothing particularly unusual about this character, the way she’s used, or her sacrifice apart from her gender. “Why is this random character suddenly in charge? Do we trust them?” could be the plot description of thousands of Hollywood films, but when the character is a woman, it’s suddenly a flaw in the filmmaking. “Why is Holdo’s sacrifice seen as brave and Finn’s seen as foolhardy?” The parallel sacrifice to Holdo is Luke, not Finn. Luke sacrifices himself to allow what’s left of the Resistance to escape, just as Holdo sacrificed herself earlier to stop the First Order from picking off Resistance shuttles one by one, allowing the survivors to escape. The parallel sacrifice to Finn is Poe sacrificing the entire Resistance bomber fleet. Both Poe and Finn ignore orders from women to stand down and escape in favor of chasing glorious, but pyrrhic, victories.

The Last Jedi spends an enormous amount of time and care on the theme “sometimes escape is the more sensible option, and glorious victories too often come at such a high cost they become failures.” Women in the Resistance are constantly fighting against cocky young men chasing glory, constantly trying to save lives that these cocky young men would sacrifice for that glory. This is a film that sees glorious sacrifice as a last resort and escape as a pragmatic and sensible choice. This is a film about discretion being the better part of valor. It doesn’t take much analytical skill to see why some men are so upset by that, and Holdo is one of the characters at the center of that narrative. The other is Leia.

 

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Carrie Fisher as Leia in The Last Jedi

LEIA. I brought a handkerchief to this film specifically because I knew in my heart I would have to watch Leia die due to the loss of the irreplaceable Carrie Fisher. When Leia survived the bridge of her ship shattering, no one was more surprised than I was. The angry male internet was, evidently, outraged because “suddenly” Leia could use the force. Leaving aside the entire EU— the film certainly does– Leia is Luke’s twin sister and uses the force in Empire Strikes BackThe Force Awakens, and The Last Jedi. TLJ is careful to show her taking a breath to prepare the moment before the bridge is shattered, and the effort nearly kills her. In the original trilogy force ghosts, space stations that have the power to destroy planets, and people with powerful telekinetic abilities who still somehow need to fight with swords are all accepted without a peep. A world with exactly zero female pilots, techs, or ground troops is accepted without a peep. A world where Biggs Darklighter’s mustache makes sense is accepted without a peep. But Leia, twin sister to the most powerful Jedi who ever lived, using the force to save her life is evidently a film-ruining moment. Any woman strong in the force without male oversight is a problem for the angry male internet, which brings us to Rey.

REY. The most common complaint from the angry male internet is “REY IS TOO POWERFUL.” She is no different than Luke was in the original trilogy in that respect. She is naturally gifted in the force, just as Luke was, yet Luke’s power is accepted without complaint while Rey is begrudged hers. Luke, a farm boy with no fighting experience, receives a bit of training from Yoda that seemingly contains zero combat skills, then leaves before his training is complete, but is still somehow able to stand against Vader for a lengthy lightsaber battle before escaping. Rey begins TFA at least knowing something about fighting, and is shown practicing with a lightsaber in TLJ. Yet once again, where Luke’s combat prowess was unquestioningly accepted, Rey’s is held up as a flaw in the filmmaking.

FINN AND POE. There’s much to be said about race in the new trilogy. We can always do better, but the diverse Lucasfilm story team, currently headed by a woman of color, is pushing everything in the right direction. What I consider to be the “right direction” is definitely at odds with a sizable number of white men. You’ll see white men all over the Resistance as pilots, techs, bridge officers, and soldiers, but because there are no white male leads by the end of the film but villains, many white men have complained they are being pushed out of the series entirely. They forget that, even now, the vast majority of films star white men, and women and people of color are expected to enjoy those films despite a lack of representation. When women and people of color discuss issues of representation, they’re denigrated as “feminazis,” “snowflakes,” and “whiners,” and even met with harassment, threats, and coordinated attacks like Gamergate. Many white men see themselves as rightfully at the center of all narrative, and believe any narrative that doesn’t feature them as heroes, even when they are featured in supporting roles, has displaced them.

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Oscar Isaac as Poe and John Boyega as Finn in a PR shot for The Last Jedi shot by Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair

While not every white man who dislikes The Last Jedi overtly dislikes its gender balance or diversity, many feel a level of discomfort with this film that they can’t name, and that expresses itself through a wide variety of odd, conflicting complaints about its filmmaking.

What solidifies this for me is the apparent need for men to publicly pronounce their dislike of the film. Hollywood releases dozens of mainstream films a year, and the only films I’ve seen men rush en masse to publicly criticize in the past few years, all for their “flawed filmmaking,” were the all-female Ghostbusters, Mad Max: Fury RoadWonder Woman, and The Last Jedi. I saw hundreds of men openly loving deeply flawed projects like Stranger Things, Deadpool, and the Blade Runner remake. We all love things that are sloppily constructed, politically problematic, or internally inconsistent. Hell, Hamlet is all three of those and you’ll have to pry Shakespeare from my cold, dead hands. But when you see thousands of men all rushing to the internet to publicly denounce something for its “flaws,” all of which contradict each other and all of which are routinely tolerated in male-driven films, including the original Star Wars trilogy itself, something else is afoot.

I don’t think every human who disliked The Last Jedi is an evil, evil misogynist. I do think that we have so deeply internalized sexist narrative tropes that we see them as “correct” and “good filmmaking” while seeing their absence as “flaws.” We read female characters differently than male characters, and we have internalized expectations for female character arcs. Instead of seeing this film for what it is, people are criticizing it for not conforming to the expectations they have of female characters. It’s fine to dislike something, but we should all spend a little more time thinking deeply about why before we charge onto the internet with “I’m fine with female-driven films, BUT . . .”

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Rey on Ahch-To in The Last Jedi

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“This is Not Going to Go the Way You Think”: The Last Jedi Is Subversive AF, and I Am Here for It

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John Boyega as Finn, Daisy Ridley as Rey, and Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico in The Last Jedi

NOTE: This post is full of spoilers.

“This is not going to go the way you think.” — Luke Skywalker

Star Wars has always had its finger on the pulse of the cultural fear of the moment. In the original trilogy in the 1970s and early 80s, it was The Man– an evil establishment that needed to be purified by a younger generation. In the prequels of the 90s, it was evil corporations secretly colluding with a corrupt government to create endless war.

Now, in early 21st century America, the villain is an unstable young white man who had every privilege in life, yet feels like the world has wronged him. Unbeknownst to his family, he finds and communicates with a faraway mentor who radicalizes him with a horrific, authoritarian ideology. By the time his family finds out, it’s too late, and now this unstable young white man has this horrific ideology, access to far too many weapons, and the desperate desire to demolish anything that he perceives as a threat– or is told to perceive as a threat.

Star Wars has always pushed at the boundaries of its culture. Princess Leia was mainstream filmmaking’s first self-rescuing princess, and the films were unstinting in depicting her importance to the military strategy of the Rebellion, reflecting an incipient 70s feminism. The prequels were clear that we were all complicit in a corrupt system whether we admitted it to ourselves or not, symbolized by noble Jedi finding themselves leading an army of slave clones that were purchased from part of a massive military industrial complex. For all the films’ faults– and they are legion– this was a stunning accusation, and played to the 90s’ growing concerns of big business’ influence on government.

The new films are again at the vanguard of cultural concerns, but push harder and more subversively than any of the previous films. Above all else, The Last Jedi is about smashing patriarchal white supremacy– smashing it to the ground and starting over– and I am here for it.

While the earlier films were about the need to purify corrupt systems, the new ones are about smashing everything and starting over.

At every turn, the new films are about “letting the past die.” At its most broad and obvious, this means killing off the older generation and handing the narrative to the new. The Force Awakens killed off Han, which was no surprise as Harrison Ford had been badgering them to kill off Han Solo since Empire. Then The Last Jedi turned a hard corner by killing off Luke when everyone expected to lose Leia due to the loss of the great Carrie Fisher. Luke sacrifices himself in one last spectacular moment of force-wielding brilliance in order to save Leia and the Rebellion. This kind of sacrifice is something we’re used to seeing from extraordinary female characters (see every extraordinary woman from Charlotte in Charlotte’s Web to Eleven in Stranger Things). In TLJ, the central white male hero of the original films dies to save an exceptionally diverse, gender-balanced group of people who are, as Poe says, the “spark that will light the fire that will destroy the First Order.” Not “save the galaxy”; not “save the Republic.” This is not about saving something from corruption. It’s about ending the old order and creating something completely new.

As the older generation dies, the older way of doing things dies as well. Luke can’t bring himself to burn down the tree containing the sacred Jedi texts, so Yoda force ghosts in and does it for him, cackling, telling Luke that Rey already has “everything she needs,” then dropping this bit of heartaching profundity: “We are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.” Anyone who has ever been a teacher or a parent understands this most painful and exhilarating of truths, but Yoda says it as the foundational texts of the Jedi order burn (as far as Luke or the audience know at that point). “We are what they grow beyond.” Not just us, but our old ways. Specifically, the old ways of hierarchical privilege.

Luke believes the Jedi order needs to die for this very reason. “The Jedi don’t own the force,” Luke says. The force is in everyone. Leia reflects this as well. “Why are you looking at me? Follow him,” she says, handing leadership to a random pilot who came from nowhere to become central to the Resistance. And although I am the first person to sign up for Team Leia– she was more than worthy of every inch of her power in the Rebellion– the door opened for her because she was part of the royal family of Alderaan. Her mother was the Queen of Naboo. Poe Dameron’s mother was a Rebel pilot. As the Rebels follow Poe, waiting for them on the other side is Rey, whose parentage was the subject of feverish speculation. Certainly she must be someone— she must come from some kind of peerage, pedigree, or privilege to be so special. But she is nobody from nowhere, daughter of unsavory junk traders who sold her for booze and died on Jakku. The force belongs to everyone, not just the pedigreed. 

Privilege is handily dismantled wherever we try to create it. Rose Tico is awed by meeting Finn, now a hero of the Resistance, only to have her hero worship dashed when she realizes Finn is trying to escape. Finn comes from nowhere– one of many nameless troopers stolen as small children. Rose, as well, comes from nowhere– daughter of miners who now works as a tech for the Resistance. Some have criticized the Finn/Rose subplot, but thematically, the meaning is critical– these young Rebels are the new generation who will build the new society on the ashes of the old. They’re played by actors of color. Rose is respected by Finn for her expertise and quick thinking as a matter of course, not as a reveal (“Oh look! The pretty girl is actually smart!” or “That competent person took off their helmet and HOLY CRAP IT’S FEMALE”). When she falls for Finn, it’s not the usual trope of Hero Wins Sexy Woman, and was therefore criticized for being “shoehorned in.” Rose wasn’t wearing a low-cut top; we never saw Finn ogling her; we never saw the camera linger over her ass. We were never given the signals “SEE HER AS A SEX OBJECT,” so her love for Finn is “shoehorned in.” But this is the stirrings of the new society. Any idiot can ogle a woman’s ass, but the man who automatically respects a woman’s expertise is well worth falling for. While Leia and Poe are trying to save the Resistance on one front, Finn and Rose represent what they’re trying to save.

The Resistance is impressive in its casual diversity. Women and people of color are valued for their expertise as a matter of course; nowhere does the film congratulate itself on its diversity by making a huge point of highlighting it, demonstrating white male benevolence by the generous inclusion of women and people of color, positing a white male audience nodding along, agreeing that we are so wonderful for allowing our White Male World to donate a very small corner for the Less Fortunate. The Resistance is naturally diverse, and no one even seems to notice. That is masterfully subversive.

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Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) addressing the Resistance in The Last Jedi

It’s not enough to destroy the old order from without. The Last Jedi demands that we examine our own complicity in the corruption of the old ways. Poe’s belief that all problems can be solved by shooting something down is shown as dangerous when unchecked; it’s the same toxic masculinity wielded by Kylo Ren, and a mainstay of war culture. The film indicts war culture and toxic masculinity throughout. Leia slaps and demotes Poe for sacrificing lives to bring down a dreadnought instead of escaping as ordered (“dead heroes. And no leaders”). Later, after his failed mutiny, she tells him that Holdo was more interested in “saving the light rather than looking like a hero.” But nowhere is the struggle against our own complicity with war culture more prominent than when Benicio Del Toro’s amoral DJ reveals to Finn and Rose that the “worst people in the galaxy”– the wealthy arms dealers who congregate at the Canto Bight casino– make their money selling weapons to both the First Order and the Resistance. 

The Last Jedi has a clear message: The nearly all-white, overwhemingly male, privilege-based way of thinking that celebrates war culture and toxic masculinity and that created the First Order has to go, both in the larger world and as it’s internalized in our hearts and minds, and in its place will be something entirely new, created by diverse young people who are walking away from war culture, walking away from toxic masculinity, walking away from systems of privilege. What new society will they create? We don’t know. But we do know that old ways of thinking have failed us in every possible way. The wisest of the older generation, like Luke, have known this for a long time. The selfish, small-minded, hateful, and power-hungry in the older generation will continue to hunt and seduce the next generation, but the light still stands. No matter how much power they accrue, no matter how many angry young white men they convince we are the enemy, the light still stands. The future is brown, and female, and brilliant, and fierce, does not give even one single fuck about the way things used to be.

Those who wanted a safe and comforting Star Wars movie are understandably upset. The Last Jedi is anything but safe. It’s as subversive as it gets, and I am here for it.

P.S. Dear Lucasfilm:

Please attack cisheteronormativity in your next film.

Cackling Along with Yoda,

Melissa

 

 

 

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How Theatre, Film, and TV Can End Sexual Harassment

During Thanksgiving, I was having a conversation with a very liberal family member. He was adamant that he supported and believed women. Then he immediately went on to tell me that women are exaggerating about sexual harassment. We had had this conversation before. I had sent him links with hard data and links with personal stories. “Did you read the links I sent you?” I asked him. “Yes. I still don’t believe it’s as pervasive as women say.” This man says he believes women, then in the next breath says that he knows better than women do what our lives are like.

A very few, very powerful men have been openly accused of sexual harassment by multiple women. A handful have lost their jobs, all of whom were already so fabulously wealthy that they were working for the pleasure of working. After generations of women* having to endure “but is she lying? She’s probably lying” as the men who assaulted them received fabulous power and wealth, we’re just at the very beginning of believing women. 

Yet we’re already seeing the inevitable backlash– men (and a few women) whining about “witch hunts,” the irony of which is jaw-dropping.

We’re already seeing articles worrying about men being fired without “due process,” which, like the first amendment, limits governmental power, not the ability of a company to fire someone. Conservatives have worked hard enough to make every state an “at will” and/or “right to work” state, so they of all people should know that a private company can fire anyone for any reason in most places.

We’re already seeing men hysterically screeching about being “afraid to talk to women at all,” as if you could accidentally grab a woman’s breasts, shove her up against a wall, and stick your tongue down her throat, as if you could accidentally take your penis out in your office.

And we’re already seeing thousands upon thousands of men who, like my relative at Thanksgiving, believe women only in the abstract, but who actually still believe that they know better than women what women’s lives are like, who believe that their opinions about which women’s stories are “real” and which are “exaggerated” should be given more weight than the millions of women saying “this is the truth of our lives.”

How do we make sure this cultural moment doesn’t backslide into the same age-old sexism we’ve endured for centuries?

Like racism, sexism is systemic, and the response must be systemic. We are all complicit in a system that creates and maintains an environment of harassment, and we must all examine both our complicity and the way male privilege works in our lives.

The men in our culture who are not sexually aggressive had to learn that the culture was lying to them, had to learn that the sexual aggression and conquest mentality they saw glorified in every corner of our culture was harmful. They had to learn how to navigate a culture that expected it of them, and that shamed them for not participating.

Those of us who create the various forms of media that have a powerful hand in shaping our culture are uniquely positioned to change that.

In addition to our own individual work examining our own complicity with fearlessness and examining with equal fearlessness the way male privilege works in our lives, we must look at the work we create and the messages we’re sending into the world. 

In no small part, we, as content creators in theatre, film, television, books, advertising, and video games created this.

We produced Oleanna and pretended it was a “balanced view” instead of a sexist takedown. We looked the other way and hired men we knew were harassers, telling women, “Just don’t be alone with him backstage.” We gave those men positions of power and awards. We regularly produced work that showed women as collectible sex objects. We glorified work that shows men pressuring women to have sex, and then shows those women finally giving in and enjoying it, as if caving to relentless pressure is an expression of normal and healthy female sexuality. We used sexual aggression as a joke. We showed women being raped and in the end, enjoying it.

There are countless films, TV shows, plays, and ads that laugh at attempted rape– or actual rape. That show women enjoying rape. Look at old episodes of MASH, where random men literally chasing weeping, frightened women are given laugh tracks, as if it’s hilarious when a woman is fighting off a rapist. Look at Pepé le Pew. Look at Madeleine Kahn’s character in Young Frankenstein. Look at 80s comedy films. And of course it’s not just a thing of the past. Look at this, this, and this.

Look at the much-lauded Stranger Things. Of course the Duffer brothers rewarded Steve’s sexual aggression by depicting Nancy caving and loving it. In these tropes, it’s common for the girl to be shamed if she refuses (“prude”) and shamed if she caves (“slut”). The Duffer Brothers were heralded for “subverting the trope” simply by delaying Steve’s inevitable shaming of Nancy. Of course, Nancy forgives Steve for her public shaming, just as she forgives Jonathan– with a smile– for stalking her. These (now) 33-year-old male writers have a clear message for 16-year-old girls, and it’s “Male sexual aggression should always be rewarded. You secretly like it anyway, so your discomfort isn’t important.” Later, they pressured an underage actress into an unscripted kiss during shooting, then laughed publicly about her discomfort. And we are still rewarding them.

Our culture has relentlessly shown that sexual aggression is rewarded, and that women who complain about it are just humorless killjoys who should relax and enjoy it.

If we want to change the culture, we must stop trivializing sexual assault and rape in the material we create. Of course we can’t do anything about old MASH episodes or Stranger Things. No one is advocating for banning existing properties, although the male hysteria on this topic would make you believe otherwise.

We can effect change by flooding the culture with new work that doesn’t make light of sexual assault, that doesn’t use rape as a way to advance a male narrative, that doesn’t reward men for sexual aggression. We can flood the culture with work that depicts women as human beings with our own stories and motivations, whether we’re the main character or not.

Imagine a romcom that doesn’t frame stalking as romantic. Imagine a horror film that doesn’t objectify women or punish female sexuality. Imagine material that does not require women to always consider male sexual pleasure, even in the midst of a crisis, that does not require women to laugh along when our assault is the butt of the joke, that does not depict sexual aggression as “natural,” “boys being boys,” or what “real men” do.

We must think critically and fearlessly about the work we write and produce. We must refuse to continue supporting work that rewards and valorizes sexual aggression. How many times have you seen two or three young women with no lines, reduced to breasts and asses, draped across a man simply as a marker of his power? How often have you seen a man depicted as exceptionally virtuous and good simply because he didn’t immediately assault a woman he was alone with? How often have you seen rape used to advance a male plotline (NOW HE MUST GET REVENGE), or to transform an “unlikeable” character into a “good” character (HER TRAUMA HAS FOREVER CHANGED HER)? How often have you seen science fiction where all the aliens are visibly male? (And before you say, “But they’re aliens! Those could be females!” they’re all cast with male actors and discussed using male pronouns.) How often have you seen projects where women are shown only as functions of the male characters (as collectibles, prizes, sex objects, impediments)?

Part of the issue is that women directors and writers in TV and film are rare. In theatre, while the numbers are slowly improving, women writers are rarely produced in larger theatres, and women artistic directors in LORTs and producers on Broadway are exceedingly rare. (That’s so well documented, I’m not even bothering to link it.) We have sexist media in large part because you don’t let us in the room, and when you do, we’re shouted down, ignored, and minimized. (And while this particular post focuses on women, these issues are intersectional, and everything I’ve said here is even more egregious for women of color, women with disabilities, women of size, and gender nonconforming people.)

We make culture. We can change it. Let us in the room. Listen to what we have to say. Examine the work you make fearlessly. Don’t cave to nonsense; hold the line against “it’s just a joke,” “she needs to be sexier,” or “she needs to be more likable– soften her character/shorten her skirt/make her younger/give her lines to a man/make her less angry.” Refuse the conventional wisdom that women can’t be more than 2 out of the 5 main characters without losing mainstream appeal and becoming “for women.” Refuse to make sexual assault a cheap plot device or a joke. Refuse to produce work that glorifies or rewards sexual aggression.

As content creators, when we refuse to support the expectation and glorification of sexual aggression, when we create work that shows women as people who are naturally part of the world, not provisionally part of the world as functions of men, we will be changing the messaging of our entire culture. The majority of our cultural messaging is disseminated through the media– through OUR WORK. Change the media, change the culture.

 

*I am using “women” to mean “female-identified people,” not “cisgender women.”

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