Friday, March 8, 2013

No More Race and Gender Talk about The Walking Dead Please...

One of the most common search terms that bring folks to We Are Respectable Negroes are those associated with critical essays about The Walking Dead TV show. 

It would appear, that the gods of Wikipedia have been behind this trend. 

My bizarre and twisted suggestion that race "matters" in The Walking Dead now rules these Internets for students who want to write about race, gender, and the character Michonne--insert maniacal laugh--until another group of "colorblind" readers retroactively change said entry. 

Based on the general reaction to my series of essays about The Walking Dead over at the Daily Kos and elsewhere, the myopia of conservative colorblindness and the power of the white racial frame, even as practiced by ostensible "liberals" and "progressives" remains a dominant cultural force even (and perhaps enabled by) the Age of Obama.

Popular culture is a mass cultural product designed to be consumed by the largest number of people, in the service of profit, and which requires little to no training to be appreciated. Often, the less critical among the general public, confuse this with a set of cultural texts and practices which are devoid of "politics" or "ideology." Moreover, because popular culture is about pleasure, many people are profoundly resistant to critically interrogating the source of their joy and distraction. 

Every society has to reproduce itself. Every society also socializes its members into a given set of norms, values, and beliefs. Much of this training is done on a subconscious level through taken for granted assumptions about "culture" and "normality." The United States is no exception to these practices. Nazi Germany is the ideal-typical case. As such, the mass media is one of the primary socializing agents of political values.

[The general public is less likely to read a newspaper of record than the elite class. The former is significantly less likely to read a policy brief or be invited to a think tank briefing. The Internet has changed this historic dynamic in some ways. The rule has not been overturned as the Internet is rife with more than its share of propaganda, stupid people tricks, and new age yellow journalism. 

Popular culture is a central way that elites socialize the masses into a given set of political views and attitudes. To point. The Cosby Show may very well have had more to do with the election of Barack Obama than did the civil rights establishment. Of course, this is not a binary story.

The average white voter of a certain age was "friends" with the Cosbies. The latter were the only black folks that the former knew. The Cosbies then became a proxy for the right type of "safe" black person who could then become President of the United States. Martin and Malcolm were titans. Cliff and Claire were fictional people who made many white folks feel comfortable. Which pair would have more impact on American politics in the long run?]

Popular culture, as a product, does not grow organically out of the ether. It is a result of a series of decisions made by people. For example, the movie Lincoln is not "real." It was produced on a sound stage by people as a (mis)representation of history in the guise of a "serious" film that could "teach" us something about contemporary politics. 

This week, Slate offered up one of the most cogent, and accessible, explanations of this dynamic which I have seen in some time:
"But what is great about deleted scenes is that they remind us that a work of art is not a sacred, inviolable artifact that springs fully formed from the head of anyone. Art is the result of choices made by—in the case of movies—directors, actors, editors, even producers and studio executives. We might tend to think that those in the latter category are more likely to ruin a movie than improve upon it, but, as Phipps acknowledges, sometimes director’s cuts are worse than what makes it to theaters."
The Walking Dead TV series is an item of commerce. Rick and company are not real people. Their adventures are a reflection of a script, and how actors and directors interpret it. The show also embodies the anxieties, fears, values, worries, and hopes of contemporary, "post racial," multicultural America.

American society is structured in and around various inequalities and hierarchies of race, gender, sexuality, and class. The default decision-rule is a simple one: these realities of power will be reflected in the country's popular/mass culture.

Consequently, the burden of proof is upon those who would suggest that race does not matter in American popular culture. To argue against the obvious ought to be an uphill fight. Ironically, in the bizarre, socially and politically inverted, race reality challenged world of post civil rights America, the burden of proof is instead put on those folks who dare to suggest that race (or gender, class, and sexuality) actually "matter."

Colorblind racism is a powerful cognitive map which can influence those seduced by its compelling siren song to mark those who speak truth to power as the crazy ones. This version of the White gaze deems that if we just stopped talking about this "race stuff" all matters of social inequality along the color line would self-correct. 

As I am fond of saying, white supremacy and white racism are among the greatest inventions ever made by man. Despite their omnipresence, they can convince those who are privileged by such systems that those of us who expose the realities of racial inequality, and how they negatively impact people of color, are somehow delusional, paranoid, or imagining things. 

Here is Sister Jane Elliot, commenting on the realities of race and popular culture with her uncommon precision and candor:

This is some grown folks talk. 


Roger GS said...

I'm also very conflicted about the color line in Breaking Bad. Well, conflicted in the sense that it's a great show, very smart about class and economics, with a shitty and largely unexamined typecasting approach to race.

James Desborough said...

I came at Walking Dead from the comics originally and felt it was better handled there. I mean... it played with the themes of race and the changed world via interesting and subtle subtext. The TV shows lacks some of that, victim of the format I think.

chauncey devega said...

The graphic novel is so much more sophisticated, balanced and smart. The decision to have "T-Dog" instead of Tyrese is baffling. Truly.

chauncey devega said...

Was Breaking Bad described as Hamlet-like in plot or am I messing up my Shakespeare allusions? I totally missed the boat on BB I need to watch it along with American Horror and that new spy show on FX.

OaktownGirl said...

I am deeply sadden but not at all surprised by the hysterical blowback of colorblind racism to your insightful, much needed, and greatly appreciated "The Walking Dead (TV show)" cultural analysis. This is perfectly stated:"...white supremacy and white racism are
among the greatest inventions ever made by man. Despite their
omnipresence, they can convince those who are privileged by such systems
that those of us who expose the realities of racial inequality, and how
they negatively impact people of color, are somehow delusional,
paranoid, or imagining things. "

And if you understandably choose to avoid further discussing the "Walking Dead" as a cultural topic online, I may just have contact you via email so I can have a healthy avenue to vent with someone who "gets it".

chauncey devega said...

There upsetness is a sign that you/we are telling the truth. I love dealing with the regular players...practice for more dangerous foes out there.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

This is awfully relevant considering Scalia's recent comments about "racial entitlements" in regards to the Voting Rights Act. He and Roberts seem to think that any overt consideration of race in regards to voting ought to be eliminated. I fear voting protections will be overturned, and the American public's blanket acceptance of the colorblinders will mean that such injustice will not be rectified.

Miles_Ellison said...

Breaking Bad has been described as Mr. Chips Meets Scarface. Sons of Anarchy was described as Hamlet-like during its first 2 seasons.

Craig said...

I watched season one and two on video and enjoyed it greatly. And then I bought the comic Compendium #1 and was bothered by the character Tyreese because I couldn't see how he related to the TV series which I loved so much. Tyreese violated my sense of how I expected things to be in the world of TWD. I was seduced by all the qualities of the show that isn't in the comic: the spooky music, special effects, visceral gore, real actors, color, atmosphere, tactility, etc. And I liked all the main characters; their relationships. It didn't bother me that T-Dog was mute in the background because he wasn't an important character and that was OK - the show moved along just fine without him having to show relevancy.
Then I came across your essay in and I couldn't get it out of my head - your critique was right on - and that ruined my love of the show for me. I still watch it and get into it but then there is that fatal weakness of race portrayl that makes all of the show's seductive qualities seem like distracting fluff; while the comic, with it's spare black and white line drawings, gets to the heart of the matter by having to develop conceptually.

Enjoyment of culture doesnt have to cling to the superficial things - critical analysis, I think, creates a hierarchy of enjoyment, it deepens one's sensibility to culture and turns our attention to where the real 'good stuff' is.

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chauncey devega said...

Hierarchy of enjoyment. I liked that. Thanks for the kind words. The show is mixed, the comics spot on. Let's keep supporting the latter.

chauncey devega said...

Is Scalia one of the walking legal undead--I couldn't resist the obvious joke about Constitutionalists

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