On Saturday night, I went to see a movie with a friend. Even though I know that I REALLY need/want to see Slumdog Millionaire, I was in the mood for something cute, light, and mindless, and so we went to see He’s Just Not That Into You.
The theater was actually quite full, and I am not kidding when I say that I think I counted about five guys among all of the young, hip twenty- and thirty-something women in the theater. I wouldn’t be as certain of the exact numbers on this, but I am also quite certain that the crowd was predominately white.
It was interesting to see how they turned a non-fiction book into a movie, and there were a number of short scenes that were what I thought of as the equivalent of a “sidebar” in a book or magazine. Both of the issues I’m concerned about happened during those “sidebars”.
Early on in the film, it showed women all over the world talking to each other and basically trying to convince each other that maybe the guy in question really WAS “into them”. In an effort to show that this was a universal phenomenon, there were scenes from other parts of the world, first from Japan, but then from Africa. The attempt at humor in the African scene (which depicted several women in traditional African dress sitting in front of their huts, preparing food and talking while a flock of goats walked among them) came with one of the women attempting to reassure the other, “maybe he forgot your hut number”.
okay, ha ha, cute, I get it, men are bastards everywhere you go. But for this film’s predominately white audience, what are we told about how Africans live? Africa is a big continent, and while some people may still live in traditional villages, there are also towns, cities, etc. And even in those “huts”, the people are more and more likely to have cell phones. At an internet ministry conference I went to a year and a half ago, one of the speakers said that the next BILLION internet users will be people with annual incomes of between $500 and $2000 per year–so not the poorest of the poor, but still pretty impoverished–and that internet cafes and text messaging/sms are going to become huge. [pretend I have an official-looking footnote here; I’m too lazy to actually DO an official-looking footnote, but I am absolutely certain of my facts on this one.]
So there we are. “oh, Lorraine, you’re being over-sensitive.” But am I? why, in the 21st century, is our picture of women in Africa still that of hut-dwellers? It was a “cute” image, and all of us young, hip white women laughed at the universal truth that was being conveyed, and none of us questioned it.
The second segment was one of a series of brief vignettes (?! I don’t know what a vignette is, but let’s pretend that this is what they were!) showing different women talking about their experiences with men. In this particular scene, two overweight black women were talking about their own experiences with men. I chuckled in recognition of what they were saying, and particularly at the reference to turning to ribs and ice cream after a break-up. I laughed, I told myself, because it’s exactly what I would do . . . BUT . . . they mentioned ribs . . . ice cream feels universal to me, but laughing at a chubby black woman talking about eating ribs somehow feels racist to me. and maybe *I’M* racist because I think it’s racist. I don’t know. I don’t know where the line is drawn between a “type”, or a protagonist (the strong, wise black woman) and a stereotype.
When I remembered, or realized, that I was in a 99% white audience laughing at this (an audience that had let out a collective cheer at the Harry Potter preview, but in which my friend and I were about the only ones laughing our heads off at the Madea preview), it didn’t sit as well with me. Add to that the fact that the only other fat people in these vignettes were a pair of very old women, or the fact that the main characters in the film were all white, and the picture began to seem less benign.
And that, my friends, is “Racism Lite”. Available everywhere images are sold!
(ps–I am curious as to whether some of my gay friends felt the same way about the stereotypical gay characters in the movie . . . for me, that was a tricky thing too, because it’s that same spectrum . . . laughing at things that you recognize as truthful, yet feeling uncertain as to where the line between character and caricature is drawn. Any thoughts?)