When absence says it all: minority representation in film and television

Growing up in Australia was a very different experience as a member of a minority. I was the only black child in a white family, so when I came home trying to explain how I was treated different, it was just my imagination…apparently. When people stared at me walking down the street or touched my hair with wonder it was “just because you’re beautiful…like a doll.” So not feeling like I fit in was how I felt…ALL the time.

skab
Garry Pankhurst, Skippy & members of the Aboriginal theatre in Yirrkala in Arnhem Land

When it came to watching television or movies, I can remember Gordon on Sesame Street and maybe the odd Aboriginal tracker on Skippy… Mostly people that weren’t white just weren’t there.  As I got older and met so many other African-American/Australian bi-racial children, who also didn’t have any contact with any other black people, I watched how they derived much of their black identity from television and film portrayals of black characters and from music.  So when we were asked to research the spatial nature of media, its (film and television) affect on identity of minorities came to mind.

So here’s what I’m doing, I’ve put together a quick survey on film and television. If you’re not from Australia, feel free to answer also (as I found a number of really old Hollywood Films made in Australia), I’d like as many responses as I can get.

For those who have something to share I also have requested video responses.

Where you can either post me a response on Youtube or send a video clip to my email: cherokee_flower@yahoo.com

This small qualitative study will be compiled into a movie and blog as part of my university work looking at media and audiences.  I also have a wide network of people online, so it’s a fantastic time to educate through storytelling.

I would love to listen to your thoughts. And if you have any questions feel free to ask in the comment box below. I always read them.

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Identities adopted or created by media

Let me be honest, I’m only halfway through reading Nick Couldry’s article ‘Constructing a digital story circle: digital infrastructure and mutual recognition’. But, I know what I want to research for Media, Audience & Place, therefore I will put digital pen to digital paper now, while I am still filled with the spirit.

As usual, in an effort to be reflexive in the foundation and inspiration for my research I will submit two examples if I may. Which will also start some sort of narrative.

Example One

John Pilger filmed a documentary called ‘The War Behind the War’.  The documentary exemplifies how during the Iraq War the commercial media in the UK, USA and Australia was complicit in creating a false identity for the allied forces by reporting propaganda and censoring what information was broadcast to the public.  So the media was framed in a way that was not objective or balanced. And we are still experiencing the fallout from that in the form of Islamophobia as we were not allowed to feel compassion for the Iraqi people, or to see them as human.

Of the many outcomes of this misinformation is cultural identities being changed or upheld in both a negative and positive capacity.

Example Two

My Dad lives in Tennessee, so you can imagine that when I visit from Australia, I’m something of a novelty.  When I would go to shop or talk to people on the street, after the shocked “Oh my God! Where are you from?”  I informed them that I was from Australia (Austria? No Australia), I would immediately be greeted with “OH! Just like in Crocodile Dundee”, yeah.

The phenomenon that I’m steering towards is the ability of television, film and other medias to create identities globally, real or imagined.

The Research Proposal

Taking this idea of media creating identities and making it specific to minority identities. Using peoples memories I would like to create a story circle with people from different minority communities. Using their their memories and experience of media overtime to create a narrative on how the portrayal or absence portrayal off the minority group affects them.  Nick Couldry explains how, ‘Three main dimensions of a digital storycircle are explored: multiplications, spatializations (or the building of narrative around sets of individual narratives), and habits of mutual recognition.’Couldry (2013, p.1) I will do this by also including the experiences and memories of members of the dominant culture in relation to the media’s portrayal of minority cultures.

As part of the narrative existing data, such as the research study quoted below, will be used to supplement my small research project. I’ll be sourcing other projects from around the world with larger sample sizes.

Research findings using college students’ perceptions have consistently
shown that negative exposure to African American portrayals in the media
significantly influences the evaluations of African Americans in general (Ford,
1997; Mastro, & Tropp, 2004; Power, Murphy, & Coover, 1996). Other res-
earch has shown that Black depictions on television have an effect on view-
ers of all ages and of all races (Bryant & Zillmann, 1994; Dates, 1980). Punyanunt-Carter (2008, p.242)
The way minorities are portrayed on television, film and other media has changed over time is an important facet of research. The below study looked at white peoples reactions to watching black comedy, ‘Stereotypical television portrayals of African-Americans in a humorous context increase the likelihood that whites will perceive an African-American target person in a stereotypical manner.’ Ford (1997, p.266) So there are some very clear studies showing the impact of the portrayals of minorities on audiences.
This cartoon today is so offensive to me. But, it would be interesting to have the discussion with someone who has the capability relaying a history. It may even be interesting to make a compilation of scenes of television and film over time and have my subjects give their impressions of each one.
Looking at how violated do minority people feel in their own homes may be a point of discussion. Do they turn off certain music or advertising because of the portrayal of minorities? What do they let their children watch? Why? If they have white friends or family over, do they watch different things in order to not offend?
Given that this will be a small study I will have to make it smaller and more specific. I do think that affect of minority portrayals on media on audience identity or perception there of it is a worthy area of media research.

References

Couldry, N, Macdonald, R, Stephansen, H, Clark, W, Aristea, L, Aristea, F, 2015, ‘Constructing a digital storycircle: digital infrastructure and mutual recognition’, International Journal of Cultural Studies, p.p.1-29
Ford, TE, 1997,’Effects of stereotypical television portrayals of African-Americans on person perception’, Social Psychology Quarterly, vol.60, no.3, p.p.266-278
Punyanunt-Carter, NM 2008,’The perceived realism of African American portrayals on television’, The Howard Journal of Communication, vol.19, no.3, p.p.241-257

Chris will not be attending the cinema this week

roxy-cinemaAs a sixteen-year-old I worked as a dental nurse in Nowra. The surgery is opposite the old Roxy theatre, where it wasn’t unusual for me to be seen the four or five times a week. I had a Granton card which knocked the extravagant price of six dollars, down to four dollars per session. Clocking off work at five o’clock meant I was just in time for the 5:10 session of whatever was playing. Courtesy of being brought up an only child, I never feared going to the movies alone. The cinema was pink and grotesque, decked out with fibreglass Roman statues of decadent gods that would not approve of the tastelessly distributed Rococo and Art Deco details in the plaster work. There was a candy bar downstairs that did not overcharge for their wares.

Years later when I moved to Sydney and found myself at my grandparents house in the western-suburbs of Sydney, my movie fetish continued.  My favourite thing was to grab some hot food, sneak it into the cinema and watch some movie that I had heard nothing about.  I was always pleasantly surprised.  I never got caught, always managing to take my feet off the seats and hide my food whenever an usher checked the aisles (an activity I haven’t seen in a long time). There was a Roxy cinema in Parramatta that had the same gawdy decorative style as the Roxy in Nowra and the uncomfortable vinyl seats and wooden floors.

My grandmother, who was also a movie buff even tried to share secrets about how to get more bang for your buck. “You know what you should do, when you finish watching one movie, you just go inside another cinema, they won’t notice.” She even tried to convince me that in senior citizen week I should dress up as an old woman, so I could see as many movies as I wanted for free.

These days the movie experience seems to be quite similar with some interesting developments. Hot food can be taken into the cinema (legally). Seats are becoming more luxurious and comfy. Some cinemas have converted seats to lazy-boy style recliners. Cinema as an event is on the rise. Events like Moonlight Cinema, Chicks at the Flicks and other interactive movie experiences are breaking down the traditional cinemascape and creating a space that is more liquid and user focused. With sensory theatre experiences on offer—for a price.

This week our task was to go to the cinema, which sounds simple, but as it quite often turns out was beyond my capabilities within this time frame. My efforts to get to the cinema in the last week read like an omage to Hägerstrand. Swedish geographer ‘Hägerstrand’s time-geographic concepts relate to how and why individuals, in one or more populations, link to each other and move (or are moved) between places which are the cornerstones of transport research.’Ellegård and Svedin (2012, p.20)

So Hagerstrand’s theorem in practice, and in relation to my planned excursion to the movies relates as follows:

1.Can I get there? = no I cannot

2. Can I correlate times? = no I could not

3. Can I get in? = if I could have, I would have

The truth is before having children I was an avid movie goer. I would always choose the cinema over viewing at home. One of those freaky people who like to go to see random movies by themselves, I was sneaking in hot food before you were allowed to (even butter chicken, which is NOT a good idea).

But my efforts to go to the cinema this week were dashed.

Why couldn’t I get there?

I have classes four days a week, most days only getting home in enough time to pick up my children from school. As a single parent, I am the only one who is available to pick my children up from school. Then, there was a birthday party all day Saturday which was adorable, but inconvenient. But there was cake, which justified all inconvenience caused.

Sunday’s excuse is I was extremely ill with flu/asthma, going to the movies would just be plain rude (coughing through the movie is another ‘no’)

Is it about time?

ABSOLUTELY. With not enough time available between returning from university and picking up the children I was unable to visit the cinema.

Authorisation

While my usual barrier in this category is money, this week it was not. I could have taken my children to the movies with me, but there was nothing that we hadn’t seen that was for children, therefore, classification became an authority barrier.

So instead, I sat on a Sunday, on my messy bed, folding the clothes I just took off the line,  wiping my nose & pitching the dirty tissues at the bamboo bin in the corner of my room. My cinematic experience was being provided by my laptop stationed on the corner of my bed. I was pressing pause every time I went to put something in the drawer in the next room. Netflix is my ever obliging box office, it is always open and never judges me when I fall asleep. It even holds my place when my kids interrupt me convinced that I MUST come to the lounge room and watch their latest dance concoction. You see, real life is so much better than what’s on the screen.

References

Ellegård, K and Swedin, U, 2012, ‘Torsten Hägerstrand’s time-geography as the cradle of the activity approach in transport geography’,Journal of Transport Geography,
vol.23, p.p. 17-25

 

Cultural Appropriation: What is all the fuss about?

Imagine for a second that your likeness wasn’t on the cover of almost all the magazines on the news stand, and that you didn’t see your likeness on television ads eating cornflakes whenever you turned the TV on.  Chances are if you are not a member of a racial minority you will have a hard time even imagining it as you never have experienced that (unless you lived in Asia of course) but give me permission to speak generally here.  Let’s add to our imagining that the only time you saw your likeness on TV or magazines was in the form of a clown type character or advertising chocolate because it matched your skin, you’d probably get a little pee’d off.  Imagine if you dared to get a little angry and speak up, you were told to ‘STFU’ or ‘stop your whining’ by a member of the dominant culture it probably wouldn’t help the situation.  So, I’m going to start the conversation here.  Here is parts of a report I’ve just completed on cultural appropriation vs cultural exchange.  I’m seeking to create clarity or a framework around what the issues actually are.

Popular Culture – Public Perceptions of Cultural Appropriation or Exchange

When researching this topic I looked widely first to academic resources, but found it is helpful to look at what general understandings or misunderstandings were regarding this topic. As an ongoing discussion among minority lobbyists and academics, cultural appropriation is a discussion that is not recognised commonly in the news, as it is not an issue for the dominant colonial cultures.

The conversation was raised in contemporary America when actor Amandla Stenberg from movie The Hunger Games(2012) released a YouTube video named ‘Don’t Cash Crop On My Cornrows’ where the young actor addresses white appropriation of black culture, using black hair styles as example. (Stenberg 2015) This YouTube video inspired a great amount of public discourse on cultural appropriation and demonstrated the lack of understanding, by dominant cultures on what cultural appropriation and why it is a problem. Typical responses were something like this:

Screen shot 2015-11-11 at 12.47.16 PMThis type of response was not limited to discussions on Amandla Stenberg’s video. I found this type of response common when speaking about the appropriation of Native American images in regards to sporting team mascots.(SmithsonianNMAI 2013)

Screen shot 2015-11-11 at 12.56.15 PM

Figure 2 (YouTube, 2015)

As relevant to my discussion on film are the responses to Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Tonto in the 2012 release The Lone Ranger. Screen shot 2015-11-11 at 1.19.03 PMNoticeably discussions regarding Johnny Depp’s overt appropriation of Native American culture had a greater number of respondents that were not comfortable with the portrayal, many of them didn’t know why, but admitted they felt uneasy.Screen shot 2015-11-11 at 1.54.20 PMJust reading through forums on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and various personal blogs the need for an informed analysis and discourse on the topic is clear. We used randomly selected comments from online forums to demonstrate existing attitudes and ignorance of the minority experience. Even Dr Adrienne Keene on her blog http://www.nativeappropriations.com in a post named ‘Repost: Why Tonto Matters’ which was at the center of much of the appropriation debate after her critical posts were made public on twitter.com, she explained to how shocked she was at the number of passionately negative responses she received, ‘I’ve been surprised at how many people have basically told me and others with similar opinions to STFU and “get over it”’.(Keene 2013)

So, what are we actually talking about?  Lets define it…

Definitions

Dictionary definitions

The Oxford Dictionary defines culture as ‘The arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively’ or ‘The ideas, customs, and social behavior of a particular people or society’.(Oxford 2015). The verb appropriate means to ‘[T]ake (something) for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission’. (Oxford 2015) So in simple terms the dictionary definition of cultural appropriation is to take ‘the ideas, customs and social behaviour of a particular people or society’ ‘for one’s own use, typically without the owners permission’.(Oxford 2015)

Exchange means ‘An act of giving one thing and receiving another (especially of the same kind) in return’.(Oxford 2015) So then simply cultural exchange would mean to ‘give’ something of one’s culture and to receive equally.

Academic Definitions

In his paper ‘From Cultural Exchange to Transculturation: A Review and Reconceputalization of Cultural Appropriation’, Richard A Rogers writes of how cultural appropriation is ‘often mentioned but undertheorized in critical rhetorical and media studies’.(Rogers 2006, p.475) Rogers goes on to create definitions of cultural appropriation as ‘the use of a culture’s symbols, artifacts, genres, rituals, or technologies by members of another culture’.(Rogers 2006, p.474) Rogers’ paper identifies the need for a political or power disparity to exist within the definition to constitute appropriation. This idea is not new. A definition by Helene Shugart in the Quarterly Journal of Speech asserts the following ‘Any instance in which a group borrows or imitates the strategies of another—even when the tactic is not intended to deconstruct or distort the others meanings and experiences—thus would constitute appropriation.’(Shugart, 1997, p.211) Shugart also cites a political or power disparity in her discussion of appropriation, writing ‘Although dominant groups certainly practice appropriation, in such contexts, it tends to function as a reinforcement of existing oppression (e.g Chapman, 1992; hooks. 1990; Marcus, 1984; Said, 1978,1989)’.(Shugart 1997) It is this reinforcement of oppression that is another distinguishing feature between appropriation and exchange.

A Personal Definition

Being of Native American, African American and Irish Australian ancestry, I reflected on what I know cultural appropriation to be. Cultural appropriation is the ‘taking’ of another cultures property, physical or intellectual, by a member of a dominant culture and making it one’s own without right or permission and creating harm, intentional or not to the ‘other’ usually oppressed group. Exchange would indicate that both parties ‘give’ and both parties ‘receive’. Therefore cultural exchange is when cultural property, physical or intellectual, is ‘given and received equally’ in a situation where the power is balanced between the two parties and there is no ‘other’ and there is a benefit to both parties without a residue of harm.

This discussion is by no means over, but I have to go take the dog for a walk and think up some other distractions to avoid writing my short story…

Nollywood: a Hip-hop Story

Nollywood image
Netflix have now started buying Nollywood titles

Nollywood originated from Lagos, Nigeria. Since 2000, it has experienced consistent growth with an estimated worth of $3.3 billion dollars and 1844 movies made in 2013 alone.

On hearing the Nollywood story I was struck by the familiar. Black people constructing a grassroots movement to fulfill their own needs to creatively express; make money and reflect their own life experiences. Sounds remarkably like the Hip-hop movement for black America.

“During the 1980s and 1990s, before the wholesale commercialization of hip-hop, mixtapes were sold on street corners by the DJs themselves, or in the back of record stores. The notion of self-production was crucial to the early hip-hop cultural movement, and its origins were also ‘organic and indigenous to the community in which such culture found its subsistence, with the idea of self-sufficiency and self-production. (Maher, 2005: 150)’(Lamotte 2014).

Like US Hip-hop, Nollywood is quickly becoming a financial tour-de-force, being hailed the second largest movie industry by volume in the world after Bollywood. (Fortune Magazine, 2015)

AUDIO-Dr-Dre-invite-Eminem-Nas-Jay-Z-et-50-cent_portrait_w532
Hip hop success stories (50 cent, Eminem, Dr Dre, Kanye West, Jay Z)

The American Hip-hop industry still exists at both a commercial and grassroots level. Individuals such as; Dr Dre, Jay-Z, Kaye West and Russel Simmons are examples of what a financial and cross cultural success hip-hop has become. (Time Magazine) There is still a rich grassroots Hip Hop culture with regular bedroom artists being still making CD’s and/or videos at home and distributing them to the local corner store for purchase by other members of the community, or even being boxed up and sent overseas to eager customers who want to hear something raw and new. This is the same way the Nollywood empire works, the only film industry that goes straight to video, without the benefit of Hollywood-esk film distribution networks. The coverage both in Nigeria, greater Africa and the rest of the African diaspora speaks of how people crave films that reflect their own identity and tell their stories.

The Nollywood distribution structure depends heavily on the street audience and video parlour to show their films.

‘There are two main kinds of “street audiences”: the “street corner” and the “video parlour” audiences. “Street audience” is an umbrella designation for a special kind of audience that congregates on the streets.’ ‘The video parlour is a simple location where members of a community congregate for the sole purpose of consuming video narratives.’(Okome 2007)

Whilst watching the small number of clips that I have in classes and lectures, I noticed a format or theme to the films that was not unlike early Hip hop filmography. Guns, girls, drugs, betrayal and larger than life characters locked in a struggle for survival. I know how African-American academics viewed much of the Hip-hop movements film, feeling that it was progressing the culture backwards by focusing on the negative, low socioeconomic and loosely moralled aspects of a society, creating an imaginary culture that only has some relatable landmarks left. I found that academic critics of Nollywood were feeling that same sense of moving backwards. Here Omoera and Anyanwu critique Nollywood in their paper on Morality in Nollywood films:

‘Now, having fought and overcame most of the vagaries of an upstart, as it were, one would have expected that filmmakers or videographers would have risen beyond a certain level of viewer/audience discomfort by doing movies that would be considered averagely above board. But sadly, the bulk of the pantheon of Nollywood remains at the level Osha (1998 p.48) refers to as “once you have seen one, you have seen them all”, suggesting that the industry is stuck with predictability in its storyline, action, and photography’ (Omoera and Anyanwu 2014)

On the whole, Nollywood seems to be unaffected by its critics, still on a steady climb upwards. In 2014 Nollywood released it highest grossing movie of all time, 30 Days in Atlanta is directed by Robert Peters and is set in Atlanta Georgia, USA. It tells the story of Akpos, who is described as Warri’s own Chris Rock and Rowan Atkinson rolled into one. Akpos wins a 30 day, all expenses paid trip to Atlanta Georgia. He is hailed as a celebrity almost immediately due to his ‘Warri accent and instincts’. ‘He would have his high and low moments. He would fall in and out of love. He would break hearts and get heartbroken himself. He would make mistakes and learn from them. And at the end of the day, he would remain a Vintage Akpos – the boy from the World’s only WARRI’. (30daysinatlanta.com)

Overtly displaying the patronising methodology that Omoera and Anyanwu accuse Nollywood of, it is obviously not a problem for their viewing public after having the highest grossing Nollywood film in history. It is also proof that Nollywood features are starting to make a bid for the African-American population first by filming the feature in Atlanta Georgia city where 54 percent of the population is Black or African-American (United States Census Bureau), secondly by making the language a hybrid of both pidgin and English, and thirdly by casting two very high profile African-American female actors in Lyn Whitfield ( Josephine Baker) and Vivica Fox (Kill Bill, City of Angels, Arsenio). This appears to be a good start to expanding their market beyond Nigeria and the diaspora by making Nollywood films a hybrid between Nigerian and American black culture. One can only wait to see what’s next.

Other References

Lamotte, M. (2014). “Rebels Without a Pause: Hip-hop and Resistance in the City.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 38(2): 686-694.

Okome, O. (2007). “Nollywood: Spectatorship, Audience and the Sites of Consumption.” Postcolonial Text 3(2): 1-21.

Omoera, O. S. and C. Anyanwu (2014). “Moral Dilemma in Nollywood: Virtue Celebration or Vice Glorification.” Journal of Pan African Studies 7(3): 135-145.