On this morning’s NPR newscast, I heard a titillating soundbite:
“What people are walking away from this film and this story with – and by the way, I put myself ahead of this list – is that people didn’t really know what slavery was really all about.”
– John Ridley, screenwriter for 12 Years a Slave
It was meant to draw me in, and draw me in it did. I listened closely to this entire piece to see what Ridley meant because my initial impulse was thinking, “What? How can this be? We’ve been given so many images and scenes and stories about what slavery in the US was and what it looked like, how can we still not understand?”
The insidiousness of media representation has been studied and discussed in depth in all sorts of venues, so it came as sort of a sad light bulb moment when it dawned on me what he meant. Yes, we have been exposed to images of slavery before, but ’12 Years a Slave’ shows a more realistic and intimate portrait of it that many people are considering eye-opening. (Full disclosure: I have not seen the movie or read the book, so what I am saying is just my opinion based on hearing this NPR piece.) It helps that the movie is based on the autobiography of Solomon Northrup, and his own telling of those 12 years offers true-to-life detailing. And yes, this is still a movie subject to its own criticism of how it is representing in the media. It certainly isn’t the end-all of slavery stories. What I am trying to say with my sad light bulb moment is this: I still take a lot of what is presented to me in the media as, if not the truth, then the status quo of what we believe as a society.
Let me repeat this: I really believed many of the images I have ingested about slavery to be the truth about slavery, or at the very least, an only-slightly glamorized version of it and the only reason I realized this is because someone pointed it out.
This is a dangerous habit.
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
― Martin Luther King Jr.
If Ridley hadn’t made the statement above, I wouldn’t have broken from that false thread. Not to say that I haven’t had the same realization before about other things, but there exists in my subconscious many threads needing to be snipped which simply haven’t come to daylight in awhile. The thread today is slavery and its representation in popular culture. Thanks to Ridley (and NPR and the movie and Solomon Northrup), I have been made a less ignorant person.
Here’s another example that hits a bit closer to home for me. This week’s episode of ‘How I Met Your Mother’ featured three of its white characters sending up Asian stereotypes in a plot involving learning what they called ‘The Slap of a Million Exploding Suns.’ It caused a stir, garnering accusations of racism, and the creators of the show apologized.
A particularly thoughtful piece written in criticism of the episode appeared on Complex.com, by Tara Aquino. I’m going to skip ahead to the comments on her article, not because I didn’t like what she said (more on that later), but because I found the comments puzzling and related to my light bulb moment this morning.
As is the case for all comment sections on the internet (the real Hellmouth?), people’s replies were colorful. One of the more common things insinuated was that this article is pointless and therefore, should not exist. That the author was too easily offended and her point is not relevant. That this has been said before about Asian misrepresentation in the media and so this article is not needed. What bothered me about these comments is how many people said that her opinion should not have been made available in any way, shape, or form.
You are familiar with the internet, right? Non-physical world made up of zeroes and ones with what is seemingly an infinite supply of space… you’ve heard of it? I think yes, since you were able to log on and leave your comment on this website’s comment thread. So even in the vastness of the internet, on this one post in a website that I had never even been on prior to yesterday, it is still not okay for this woman to say what she had to say? Never mind the fact that her writing is on-point, well-written, and part of her job – these are still unacceptable terms to you? This is not useful?
(Sorry, I try not to use sarcasm but I couldn’t resist this time.)
Saying something is useful, even if it is just a small drop in the digital ocean or one 9-minute report through the air’s bandwidth. The number of things that had to occur for all of this information to find me at my desk and in my car in the last 24 hours is astonishing, to say the least. All because someone said something. With eloquence and respect, I should add, unlike many of the comments.
I actually was not offended by this episode of HIMYM (I am Chinese-American), but I agreed with Aquino. More importantly, I learned more about what it means to be Filipino-American and was completely surprised by the examples she mentioned. These are things worthy of mentioning and completely useful.
The next time you are offended and want to say something about it, please remember that it is absolutely useful, even if you only reach one person by chance.
[a] Courtesy of Fox Searchlight
[b] Courtesy of CBS
[c] Wikipedia; Courtesy of the show “Buffy”
[d] Grabbed from Funnyordie.com