Based mostly at the suggestion of various friends, I have been catching up on movies that I needed to see, in the cultural sense, but didn’t necessarily want to see, in the political sense. As always, I am traumatized by these viewing experiences.
First was the movie, Flight.
Then I watched Beasts of the Southern Wild.
Then came that final twilight foolishness: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part 2. I have already talked about that here so, unsurprisingly, I didn’t change any of my positions on THAT.
I really couldn’t get past the first five-minute frames of each of these movies and, ironically, each started basically the same: with a twisted, pornographic imagination where women are slithering animals and sexual objects. I was actually surprised by Flight, despite all that I had heard about using Denzel, a black man, to play an addict. I didn’t expect for the movie to open by showcasing a Latina’s naked body (played by Puerto Rican actress and model, Nadine Velazquez). I expected that we wouldn’t see Denzel fully naked, not because it’s Denzel, but because it is quite normative for every ad, video, or television show to have a fully clothed man next to an almost naked woman. There’s no logic to a man dressed in long sleeves and coat standing next to a woman in a bikini—someone must be really cold or someone must be really hot— other than the deliberate parading/selling of women’s bodies. As I watched Flight, Denzel’s white female love interest (played by Kelly Lynch)— an unemployable drug addict who almost dies from an overdose— is never shown fully naked, not even in the studio where her friend/drug-supplier is making porn videos. Instead, this white love interest is frequently told by a cancer victim of her beauty, gets saved by Denzel from her eviction and landlord ‘s physical violence, and then she saves Denzel in the end by introducing him to AA. A (black) shining knight to the rescue of a white woman! The movie seems to make a point of letting us know that the first woman is Latina by stating her full name more than a few times. Intentionally so, this is not another J-Lo-featured movie where we have a Latina playing/passing as a white woman. Though he defends her in the end, Denzel’s Latina love interest does not receive the same salvation in this movie as the white woman. The two black women in the movie are not even full characters: the ex-wife is scorned, angry, alone, and demanding money; the co-worker is asexual and loyal (even if it means telling a torturous lie) til the very end, the perfect mammy. The talk about the movie seemed to question why Denzel’s love interest couldn’t have been a black woman, but the answer to that question seems obvious and does not begin to deal with what the movie does with Latina bodies (and that’s only ONE of the problems with the movie). Clearly, when we talk about the sexual exploitation of women’s bodies, not all women are equally exploited and sexualized, and white women seem to always be rescued. But we knew this already, didn’t we?
Beasts of the Southern Wild opens with a little black girl climbing around in her underwear (Hush Puppy, played by Quvenzhané Wallis). It’s unnecessary to repeat all of the problems with the images of this little black girl in this film. At this point, all you need to do is read bell hooks’s analysis, “No Love in the Wild,” on Mark Anthony Neal’s blog. I was, unsurprisingly, mesmerized by Wallis’s talent as well as Dwight Henry who played the father; both are very talented within a script that could not adequately allow for it. At this point though, I am most stunned by the willingness of adults— whether it be 21st century parents, Catholic priests, or film producers— to sexualize children’s bodies with the aid of digital cultures, social networking, and other multimedia operations. The gaze of these filmmakers on Hush Puppy’s body feels no different to me than the gaze of the new digital archivist-parent who posts videos of her half-naked child on youtube, including my own college peers, who post endless photos of their children (and themselves) on Facebook half-naked all the time (these are supposedly protected FB sites and yet I am not even on FB and can get access). And while cultural critics can talk forever and a day about the necessary and positive blurring of private and public and the rupture of respectability politics, there is something really wrong when parents have their small children perform, wearing only underwear or pajamas, in front of a camera for a youtube audience in the context of a cyber-world that daily criss-crosses with pedaphiliac violence. Everyone has a role in digital empire and this is what it looks like for exploited children and their digitized pimp/parent. You need only watch shows like “Toddlers and Tiaras” to see that parents willingly and regularly participate in the media pimping of their children quite regularly in all kinds of ways. I agree with hooks that Beasts of the Southern Wild certainly participates in this culture of commodifying children’s bodies but in my mind, it is doing so as the new digitized pimp-parenting, not simply as a Hollywood tool.
As for the last installment of Twilight? Well, like I said before: it is something I have had to keep up with in order to experience what many of my students have experienced. Here again, we have a woman slithering around, literally roaming the woods, climbing walls, hunting for blood/food, like a starved animal, because she is a vampire now. At least, unlike Trina in Flight and Hush Puppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild, she gets some supernatural powers. Bella tells us somewhere in the movie that her time as a human was over, but given these images, one might wonder if women were ever allowed to fully participate as human in the first place.