HU Cultural Criticism and Transformation Through Mass Media Discussion

MEDIA EDUCATION FOUNDATION T R A N S C R I PT BELL HOOKS CULTURAL CRITISICM & TRANSFORMATION Challenging media BELL HOOKS—CULTURAL CRITISICM & TRANSFORMATION Produced & Directed by Sut Jhally Edited by: Mary Patierno, Sut Jhally & Harriet Hirshorn Editing & Production Assistance by: Sanjay Talreja Featuring an interview with bell hooks, Distinguished Professor of English at City College of New York. One of America’s most accessible public intellectuals, she is the author of fourteen books of commentary, criticism, & autobiography. Media Education Foundation © MEF 1997 2 PART ONE – On Cultural Criticism WHY STUDY POPULAR CULTURE? BELL HOOKS: The book that I’ve written that most try to talk to frame my concern with popular culture to a more general audience is the collection of essays Outlaw Culture. And in the beginning of that book what I say is that students from different class backgrounds and ethnicities would come to my classes and I would want them to read all this meta-linguistic theory of difference and otherness and they would say, ‘well what does this have to do with our lives?’ I found continually that if I took a movie and said, “Well did you go see this movie? And how do you think about it?” and I related something very concrete in popular culture to the kind of theoretical paradigms that I was trying to share with them through various work, people seem to grasp it more and not only that, it would seem to be much more exciting and much more interesting for everybody. Because popular culture has that power in everyday life. [Movie: Forrest Gump] My momma always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get. BELL HOOKS: Whether we’re talking about race or gender or class, popular culture is where the pedagogy is, it’s where the learning is. So I think that partially people like me who started off doing feminist theory or more traditional literary criticism or what have you begin to write about popular culture, largely because of the impact it was having as the primary pedagogical medium for masses of people globally who want to, in some way, understand the politics of difference. I mean it’s been really exciting for someone like me, both in terms of the personal desires I have to remain bonded with the working class culture and experience that I came from as well as the sort of southern black aspect of that and at the same time to be a part of a diasporic world culture of ideas and to see how can there be a kind of interplay between all of those different forces. Popular culture is one of the sites where there can be an interplay. 3 CRITICAL THINKING AS TRANSFORMATION BELL HOOKS: My own sense is that the most enabling resource that I can offer as a critic or an intellectual professor is the capacity to think critically about our lives. I think thinking critically is at the heart of anybody transforming their life and I really believe that a person who thinks critically, who, you know, may be extraordinarily disadvantaged, materially, can find ways to transform their lives, that can be deeply and profoundly meaningful in the same way that someone who maybe incredibly privileged materially and in crisis in their life may remain perpetually unable to resolve their life in any meaningful way if they don’t think critically. As someone who’s moved from teaching at very fancy private predominantly white schools to teaching at an urban, predominantly non-white campus in Harlem. The first thing I noticed was that my students were equally brilliant in the Harlem setting as they were when I taught at Yale or Oberlin but their senses of what the meaning of that brilliance was and what they could do with it, their sense of agency was profoundly different. You know when students came to Yale, they came there knowing that they are the best and the brightest and they think that they have a certain kind of future ahead for them and they in a sense are opened to embracing that future. It has nothing to do with the level of knowledge. It has more to do with their sense of entitlement about having a future and when I see among my really brilliant students in Harlem, many of whom have very difficult lives, they work, they have children, is that they don’t have that sense of entitlement, they don’t have that imagination into a future of agency and as such, I think many professors do not try to give them the gift of critical thinking. In a certain kind of patronizing way education just says, all these people need is tools for survival, basic survival tools, like their degree so they can get a job and not, in fact, that we enhance their lives in the same way we’ve enhanced our lives by engaging in a certain kind of critical process. 4 THE POWER OF REPRESENTATION BELL HOOKS: It’s scary to me now, because, particularly in issues around erotica and sexual violence, people want to deny the direct link between representations and how we live our lives. I think that it’s possible to embrace the knowledge that there’s a direct link between representations and choices we make in our lives that does not make that link absolute, that does not say, “oh, if I look at a movie in which a woman is fucked to death,” than I will go out and think I should let myself be fucked to death by any man who wants to fuck me. I think that’s an absurd sense of a direct link, but that is not to say, that if I watched enough of those images I might not come away thinking that certain forms of unacceptable male violence in coercion in relationship to my female body are acceptable. It’s frightening to me now when people want to behave as though certain images don’t mean anything. I thought of this when I saw Larry Clark’s Kids and I went back like in circles of progressive white friends and I said, “Oh, God, you know, the racial politics in terms of representation in this film really suck.” And they really wanted to say, it didn’t matter. It didn’t mean anything. And I was like, “Give me a fucking break. Like we know why the person is brutally bashed to death is a dark skinned black man, it’s crucial that he’s a dark skinned black man, because in fact, people’s antipathy to dark skinned black men is actually much greater than their antipathy to black men in some kind of general way. I feel that it’s frightening that as mass media uses more certain kinds of representations for specific impact and effect, we’re also being told that these images are not really that important. Think about all the Americans who’ve never ever in their lives for one second thought about Scotland and Ireland, who went to see Braveheart, who suddenly like put notions of British imperialism and the freedom of Ireland on their little social maps because of a Hollywood movie. I was truly awed by how much Hollywood film could like totally alter people’s perceptions of national liberation struggles globally in a way that would call attention to those who are in a sense the underclass in those struggles. And that is also the power of white male privilege. White male stardom. I mean it’s important for people to look at who produced and directed that film. Because it’s not just that Hollywood can do that, it’s that specific liberal white men who are moneyed within the context of Hollywood can produce whatever images that they want to produce. 5 MOTIVATED REPRESENTATIONS BELL HOOKS: We look at the recent movie Smoke where the thief is a black kid. Now in the original script – it’s based on the story by Paul Auster – in the story there’s no racial identification of the character. So when I talk to Wayne Wang who directed the film, I said, “Why did you choose to make the thief black?” He putters and stutters around but he can’t say, he will not say, because the only thing he can say is, “This will give this movie more zip to make the thief black, it will make it more compelling to people. It will give a kind of good guy, bad guy quality to it and it will just make it all the more stimulating, because he would have to admit that the fact that he simultaneously in making that choice is also reproducing certain kinds of racial stereotypes.” Nobody wants to lay claim to consciously constructing these images that perpetuate white supremacy, racism, etc. And the ironic thing is that I can sit in classrooms in universities where my students don’t want to accept that someone consciously creates that representation. [Movie: Star Wars] Where are those transmissions you intercepted? What have you done with those plans? BELL HOOKS: How come people didn’t think about Darth Vader and the whole sort of sense of who decides what voice will constitute the villainous voice? [Movie: Star Wars] If this is a councillorship, where is the Ambassador? BELL HOOKS: What does it mean that media has such control of our imaginations that they don’t want to accept that there are conscious manipulations taking place and that in fact, we want to reserve particularly for the arena of movie making a certain sense of magic? A certain sense that reality is being documented and, again, you know, I think that part of the power of cultural criticism and cultural studies has been it’s sort of political intervention as a force in American society to say, there really is a conscious manipulation of representations and it’s not about magical thinking, it’s not about like pure imagination, creativity, it’s about people consciously knowing what kinds of images will produce a certain kind of impact. [Movie: Braveheart] I will love you my whole life. You and no other. 6 AN EXAMPLE OF MOTIVATED REPRESENTATION: Leaving Las Vegas & the Backlash Against Feminism BELL HOOKS: One of the issues that no one wants to talk about is that finally the most successful political movement in the United States over the last twenty years was really the feminist movement and that there is a tremendous backlash to feminism that is being enacted on the stage of mass media. So that films like Leaving Las Vegas really are about ushering in a new old version of the desirable woman that really is profoundly misogynous based and sexist. It’s no accident, we know that when women went into the factories in the World Wars because men were not here, that when those wars ended, mass media was used to get women out of the factory and back into the home, well in a sense mass media is being used in that very same way right now, to get women out of feminism and back into some patriarchal mode of thinking and movies to me are the lead propaganda machine in this right now. [Movie: Leaving Las Vegas] So for five hundred bucks you can do pretty much whatever you want. You can fuck my ass. — Ohmigod. You can cum on my face. 7 WHY “WHITE SUPREMACIST CAPITALIST PATRIARCHY?” BELL HOOKS: I began to use the phrase in my work “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” because I wanted to have some language that would actually remind us continually of the interlocking systems of domination that define our reality and not to just have one thing be like, you know, gender is the important issue, race is the important issue, but for me the use of that particular jargonistic phrase was a way, a sort of short cut way of saying all of these things actually are functioning simultaneously at all times in our lives and that if I really want to understand what’s happening to me, right now at this moment in my life, as a black female of a certain age group, I won’t be able to understand it if I’m only looking through the lens of race. I won’t be able to understand it if I’m only looking through the lens of gender. I won’t be able to understand it if I’m only looking at how white people see me. To me an important break through, I felt, in my work and that of others was the call to use the term white supremacy, over racism because racism in and of itself did not really allow for a discourse of colonization and decolonization, the recognition of the internalized racism within people of color and it was always in a sense keeping things at the level at which whiteness and white people remained at the center of the discussion. In my classroom I might say to students that you know that when we use the term white supremacy it doesn’t just evoke white people, it evokes a political world that we can all frame ourselves in relationship to. And I think that I was able to do that because I grew up, again, in racial apartheid, where there was a color caste system. So that obviously I knew that through my own experiential reality, you know, that it wasn’t just what white people do to black people that was wounding and damaging to our lives, I knew that when we went over to my grandmother’s house, who looked white, who lived in a white neighborhood, and she called my sister, Blackie, because she was dark and her hair was nappy and my sister would sit in a corner and cry or not want to go over there. I knew that there is some system here that is hurting this little girl, that is not directly, the direct hit from the white person. And white supremacy was that term that allowed one to acknowledge our collusion with the forces of racism and imperialism. And so for me those words were very much about the constant reminder, one of institutional construct, that we’re not talking about personal construct in the sense of, how do you feel about me as a woman, or how do you feel about me as a black person? But they really seem to me to evoke a larger apparatus and I don’t know why those terms have become so mocked by people because in fact, far from simplifying the issues, I think they actually when you merge them together really complicate the questions of freedom and justice globally, because it means then that we have to look at what black people are doing to each other in Rwanda, we can’t just say racism, what have you. We have to problemitize nationalism beyond race, in all kinds of ways that I think there’s a tremendous reluctance, particularly in the United States to do, to have a more complex accounting of identity. 8 ENLIGHTENED WITNESS BELL HOOKS: And the issue is not freeing ourselves from representation. It’s really about being enlightened witnesses when we watch representations, which means we are able to be critically vigilant about both what is being told to us and how we respond to what is being told. Because I think that the answer is not the kind of censoring absolutism of a right wing political correctness but in fact of a proactive sense of agency that requires of all of us one, a greater level of literacy. I think that we cannot begin to talk about freedom and justice in any culture if we are not talking about mass based literacy movements. Because I think that literacy as we know from the work of Marshall McLuhan and many others that the degrees of literacy determine so often how we see what see, how we interpret it, what it means for our lives and that there’s a way in which radical movements for freedom in the United States devalue the significance of literacy as a radical agenda for politicization. So it seems to me that two major factors of intervention have to do with both critical thinking and then the capacity to read and write. Because so much enlightening information only comes through the printed page, so if people are not able to read and write they already don’t have access to those forms of enlightenment. I mean if we look at someone like Malcolm X, he charts his own intellectual development through reading. If you look at me I chart major radical interventions in my life with books that I’ve read. Not movies that I’ve seen, not television shows, but books that I’ve read. We cannot over-value enough the importance of literacy to a culture that is deeply visual. I mean rather than seeing literacy and the visual and our pleasure in the visual as oppositional to one another, I think we have to see them as compatible with one another. I don’t think we will get much further in terms of decolonizing our minds. So that we can both resist certain kinds of conservatizing representation and at the same time create new and exciting representations. 9 PART TWO: DOING CULTURAL CRITICISM CONSTRUCTED NARRATIVE BELL HOOKS: It’s always difficult when I want people to see that I can be deeply moved by a film and at the same time see the kind of dilemmas that are involved in the production of certain kinds of representations and Hoop Dreams was another case where I wanted people to see that this documentary reflected as much about the individuals who shot it and directed it as it did the lives of the people that they were shooting and that they made certain kinds of choices. They made choices about when to show us that one of the boys had a girlfriend and that she was pregnant. It’s like all of a sudden you blink, you think wait a minute, we didn’t even know he had a girlfriend and now he’s going to be a father. What happened? What that moment should have made audiences remember is that you are not getting some direct account of this individual’s life or these two individuals, but that in fact, you are getting a version of their life mediated by the concerns and interests of the filmmakers. And I think people were very hostile to having again, to be asked not to think of this as a true story in the sense of the innocent filmmaker who is just turning the camera on the lives of these young black men and we get to see it, but in fact as people who had a very definite message that they wanted to get out of those lives. I mean what really struck me about Hoop Dreams was that it presented itself initially as a critique of certain aspects of American sports, American idealism, American notion of democratic access to success. [Movie: Hoop Dreams] You have to realize that nobody cares about you. You’re black. You’re a young male; all you’re supposed to do is deal drugs and mug women. The only reason why you’re here, you can make their team win, if the team wins, these schools get a lot of money. BELL HOOKS: But in fact, as the film develops it re-inscribed those values as the important values. And in fact, the young man who turns his back on those values, I felt cinematically became the lesser character, the non-heroic character in the film. But we’re not made to feel that it’s heroic when he chooses to focus on his academic studies and not to play basketball. Which is where the film begins, I think, to let down its earlier critique in the interest of having a mass base appeal. The upbeat ending, the sort of conclusion that suggests, it was still possible for one of these black guys to succeed, to make it was part of what the thrill for many moviegoers, you know. That it wasn’t an indictment of the American dream ultimately. That in fact it was a film that was saying, in spite of it all, in spite of the corruption, you can still hold on to this dream and it can give your life meaning. 10 DEALING WITH O.J. BELL HOOKS: The O.J. Simpson case was not compelling to me personally as something to watch and to observe and to talk about because I felt the deepest terms in relation to Guy Debord’s work on the Notion of Spectacle, it was situated as spectacle from the very beginning. It seemed to me that that construction of it as a kind of carnival, as a spectacle meant that one could actually not participate in that, without in fact colluding with the very forces, white supremacist capitalist patriarchy that had led to the violent death of Nicole Simpson in the first place. And I felt morally and ethically that as a feminist who has opposed domestic violence, who has wanted there to be a recognition of the meaning of domestic violence as one of the ways in which patriarchy affirms and perpetuates itself, it was impossible to feel that in any way benefiting from this, that I was actually not then colluding in not only affirming the patriarchal culture of violence that surrounded this case, but also actually working to do the very thing …

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