Wed, May. 30th, 2007, 04:28 pm || Wiscon 31: What These People Need Is a Honky

add to memories

Description: Tom Cruise is the Last Samurai. Kevin Costner wins the heart of American Indians with his wolf dancing. Orlando Bloom, in Kingdom of Heaven, goes from medieval England to Jerusalem to teach the Arabs how to sink wells and transport water. Is there anything that can be done about this plague of Orientalist white-guy Mary Sue-ism?

Panelists: Doselle Young, coniraya, me, Janine Ellen Young (mod)

Props to vito_excalibur for the Best Panel Title Ever!

Doselle Young ran in, saw me and coniraya sitting there, gulping down our caffeinated beverages of choice in an attempt to be coherent for the panel, and said, "I'm the moderator?!"

"Yup," we said, still half asleep.

"But I don't want to be the moderator! Being moderator is boring! I think we should rule by anarchy!"

And we probably would have until Janine Ellen Young (Doselle's wife) came in and got stuck as the moderator. There was much joking around about what the panel needed was a honky, as Janine was the only white person on the panel. I think coniraya (black) joked that he was probably going to get killed off in the first half.

I don't have very good notes on what was said at the panel, since I was mostly trying to concentrate on sounding somewhat intelligent.

I gave a list of movies that may or may not fit the panel description, as largely culled from LJ (LJ knows all!). My caveat is that I got these off the flist and haven't seen most of them. I'm also adding in the titles that came up during the panel itself.

List of movies/books: The Last Samurai, Shogun, The Painted Veil, The Magnificent Seven (? eventually voted off by the audience), Kim, South Pacific, Lost in Translation, Seven Years in Tibet, The King and I, Anna and the king, The Man Who Would Be King (identified as a take on the trope), Dances with Wolves, Geronimo, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Windtalkers, Glory, Cry Freedom, Blood Diamond, The Constant Gardener, The Last King of Scotland (as a sort-of take on the trope), Amistad, Kingdom of Heaven, Emerald Forest, Clan of the Cave Bear, Lawrence of Arabia, Return of the Jedi (Ewoks), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, Tears of the Sun, Pathfinder, Tamora Pierce's Trickster and Kel books, and the multitude of movies that fit the "white teacher saving inner city kids" trope. ladyjax threw out Posse as an example of a good take on the trope.

I summarized the trope as being (please picture scarequotes around all occurences of "natives"): White guy flees from his own culture for personal reasons (to set him up as different from those with white privilege). White guy meets natives. Natives educate white guy. White guy learns the way of natives, possibly also converting a native person who was originally doubtful of him, thereby proving white guy's worthiness. White guy fights for naties. White guy makes dramatic escape while the native guy dies, possibly trying to help the white guy. The movie then ends with a dramatic coda and captions that inform the audience that despite white guy's triumph, the Situation Remains Dire.

The key to all this is that the entire movie is about the white guy's personal growth and realization and that people of color serve only to further the white guy's epiphanies.

"And don't forget, the white guy always gets the sexy native girl! Or a white girl who has been raised native," said one of the panelists.

Janine asked all of us which movie of this type offended us the most, and we all fell silent for a while. "But there are so many!" someone said.

Doselle Young then (or before? I have horrible memories of this panel) talked about a recent movie he saw in which the black character not only sacrificed himself for the white character, a la Terminator 2, but did so singing and dancing. I think I mentioned Cry Freedom because it was the most recent one I had seen and because the first half actually focused on the black character, only to have the entire second half be about the white journalist's escape. There were maybe two black characters in the second half, and the movie was set in South Africa! Coniraya mentioned Phantom Menace (I think); he remembered being so excited about it, only to go in and be slapped in the face with Jar-Jar Binks, the Japanese-sounding evil traders, and the Jewish-sounding merchant/slaveowner.

Janine asked if Lucas was deliberately being racist; all of us thought no, probably not. Coniraya said that lots of cartoons that Lucas watched probably had the same accents and that Lucas might have just picked it up, but that that was why it was important to examine these things.

I brought up the Ewoks speaking Tagalog, knowledge courtesy of littlebutfierce ("Yes, let's make the little brown bears speak the language of the litle brown people!" she remarked there); Coniraya told people about the Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee casting news. The audience all groaned out loud, and Doselle Young put his head in his hands and said, "Excuse me. I need a moment to process." I can't remember if news of Brian Dennehy cast as GenghisKublai Khan came up here or not, though I suspect it did.

seaya mentioned the giant genre of "white teacher saves inner city kids," leading Coniraya to describe a Mad TV sketch featured "Nice Teacher Lady."

Janine asked us why we thought these "white man savior" movies were made by Hollywood. I think I took that opportunity to spout off my theory that the movies displayed the difference between institutional racism and personal prejudice; the heroes in the movies are ok in the end because they have conquered their personal prejudice, even if they have done absolutely nothing to combat racism as an institution. But the coda at the end about the Dire Situation served to make the (white) audience feel better for educating themselves on these issues.

Coniraya made the point that these movies clearly weren't being made for POC, which was racism in a whole 'nother sense. The filmmakers and writers were simply assuming that their audience was white.

I think I made a point about how even though the story of the white pilot in Shogun and the mixed-race protagonist of the Bury My Heart movie were both based on historical fact, someone (or many someones) made the decision to use that historical figure instead of focusing on non-white historical figures.

Someone in the audience mentioned mixed-race characters in media and how they're nearly always forced to act as a bridge between cultures or a translator or an interpreter. And then, of course, there was mention of the Tragic Mulatto trope. sparkymonster said something like, "Wouldn't it be nice if, for once, there were a mixed-race character who was just, you know, there? Having her own life? And not being tragic or conflicted?"

Coniraya also said that he lost respect for any actor or performer who was mixed race but claimed to be white, and only later admitted to being mixed race when it was politically savvy to do so.

We went back to the topic of interracial romances and how they always seemed to be between a white man and a woman of color; I can't remember if people mentioned that it was like colonialism in the miniature, but I suspect they did. Coniraya also mentioned that the black man never gets to have a romance with the white woman, citing Pelican Brief (the romance is in the book) and something that I forgot. I can't remember if the trope of the desexualized Asian man and the super-sexualized Asian woman came up, though I think it did, because I remember saying something about not being a geisha.

Someone asked if Denzel Washington specifically asked to be paired with other women of color; Coniraya said yes, but that Denzel was one of the few black actors who had the clout to do so.

There was also talk of the politics and financials of Hollywood, of how there are nearly no actors like Denzel who can draw in a white audience, and of how the system perpetuated itself. All the starring roles are given to white actors, so they become the ones people are familiar with, while actors of color get stuck with stereotyped roles. And, of course, the system went even further, so that most producers and writers and directors are white as well. Coniraya mentioned Pam Noles' post on white males still dominating Hollywood, surprise surprise.

I think I said something about how most of the movies have the person of color admiring the white protagonist for his character or his skill or something, and in general the panelists seemed to agree that the movies were a salve for white guilt -- get acknowledged for your efforts without having to give up any privilege.

Someone else brought up the fact that we were mostly talking about movies and TV (there was mention of the Buffyverse California and the Stargates); Doselle mentioned that for books, he wasn't as struck by it because it wasn't visual. I mentioned the Empire books by Feist and Wurts for mine (People! Asian culture is not all about ritual suicide!). I think this is when Coniraya talked about the Tamora Pierce books.

We never got around to talking about the Magical Negro as a possible complement to the Honky Savior trope, and I think the panel concluded with panelists saying that it would be so easy not to create a Honky Savior movie just by having POC as the main characters.

All in all, this was the panel I had the most fun at, and I think it went pretty well with the audience too. I do wish we were able to talk about more things in detail, but I think we hit a good number of topics. Also, the audience was great.

ETA: I forgot! Here's the link I told people about at the panel: "How to write about Africa."

ETA2: Attributed note of white teacher subgenre to seaya

ETA3: Fixed info on Brian Dennehy and added link.