People sick of American politics and American media, you might want to look away from this one. Or not. Also, I reserve the right to use copious profanity throughout this post… because it involves American politics and media.
For various reasons on Sunday night — mostly having to do with the fact that I can’t beat that one hidden boss in the Dragon Age 2: Legacy DLC wtf why doesn’t Anders heal faster he’s so damn useless and seriously why is Sebastian even in this game — I found myself watching Predators (2010) on TV. I’d been vaguely interested in seeing the film back when it was out in theaters, but something warned me not to, so I didn’t. So I got to see it on cable, sans the first 20 minutes in which I wasn’t paying attention while I made dinner… and wow. What an utter mess. My instincts were completely correct.
I get what they were trying to do with it. The pure-nostalgia soundtrack, the return to the jungle environment — this was basically a remake of the original Predator (1987) that the studio decided not to label as such. I liked the original Predator, back when I was a teenager, because a) most teenagers have appalling taste, and b) who wouldn’t like seeing a team of smartmouthed macho men getting the arrogance kicked out of them — Oh, wait, that wasn’t why you liked the film? Oh, well. Actually Predator was kind of progressive for an action movie of its time. It didn’t have an ethnic enemy; remember Rambo was the thing back then, Americans endlessly re-fighting the VietKoreWorld War and reframing it as One White Guy Against The Endless Brown Hordes. Not that there weren’t brown hordes in the film, but at least the film correctly implied that American CIA shenanigans were at the root of that. And it actually had an ensemble cast, sort of. This was back in the days when Ahnold wasn’t quite the big name he later became (partly as a result of Predator); Carl Weathers was better-known thanks to the Rocky films, and Jesse “the Body” Ventura had a big audience via wrestling. So Carl Weathers’ character got to have some personality and purpose in the story other than to be The Black Guy Who Dies, and Ventura got to pronounce classic lines like “Ain’t got time to bleed” with a straight face.
But that movie had serious problems. You knew Weathers’ character was doomed the instant you saw him, along with Bill Duke’s character — the other black guy. You knew when you saw Billy, the generic American Indian character, that he was going to die a Noble Savage death. You knew Poncho, the generic Latino character, was going to reveal cowardice or criminality before the end of the film. You knew the female character, who never even got a name, would be useless deadweight and have to be rescued repeatedly. You also knew she would probably get to live, because who else is the surviving male hero going to bang for his victory celebration?
This new version raised all of that, and saw us some additional extra-crispy crapcakes to boot. Nothing progressive about this one; regressive, in fact. It’s Adrian Brody and his amazing friends — not an ensemble — with the rest of the cast reduced to nothing but a TV Tropes index. The role of the Noble Savage was played by an English-speaking Yakuza who inexplicably knew how to date and wield a samurai sword with expert skill. (Because that’s what all Japanese do in their spare time, don’t you know: sword practice and antiques appraisal.) There were again two black guys, but the movie pulled an awesome fakeout by making me initially think the one played by Laurence Fishburne would have an interesting role. (And by “awesome” I mean “rage-inducing”.) The lone woman gets to carry a gun this time, and actually shoot it! And she doesn’t have to be preggo to survive the film (a la Predator 2). Progress! Not. She still gets reduced to helplessness before the end, and must be rescued by Adrian Brody’s uber white guy. There’s a lovely little Adam-and-Eve shot of them near the end.
(I’ve been consoling myself since Sunday by imagining that both characters are gay and want nothing to do with each other. I know there’s some fanfic out there somewhere like this. Recommendations welcome.)
So 25 years after the original Predator and we’re still getting slapped with the same — or worse — tired, predictable bigotry every time we risk our dollars or time on Hollywood. I don’t go to the movies much anymore, and this is why. But here’s the problem: all that canned bigotry we’ve been swallowing? It’s everywhere. It permeates all our media, from video games (even the ones I like, like Dragon Age 2, though it’s better than most) to movies to commercials to books (even my own fiction, though I try to be better than most). It sends us unsubtle messages about who can be trusted, and who can’t; who has a chance of survival in a crisis, and who doesn’t; who’s smart and who’s just a big dumb thug. Who will succeed, and who will fail. And worst of all, the canned bigotry in our media poisons the way we view the real world. This should not be news to anyone reading.
But something important has changed: Americans. We’ve never been just what American media so relentlessly depicts. Now, however, with every passing year, the narrative that the media chooses to promote — straight white guys doing everything, being everything, winning everything — becomes more and more blatant a falsehood. Non-hispanic whites are about 60% of our population. Less than half of those are white men. Yet white men get the vast majority of lead roles in American films and television. (PDF) They don’t even have to compete for those roles; in most cases the roles are set aside for white males and white males alone. (Talk about Affirmative Action. People of color have never been the primary beneficiaries.)
America’s scholars and doctors are not mostly white men; they don’t look like what Hollywood gives us. Our soldiers don’t look like this. Our athletes don’t look like this. Our teachers and volunteers and musicians and tourists and fucking dogwalkers don’t look like this. Our children don’t look like this.
And every time we unquestioningly accept a straight white guy as the centerpiece of all our art and entertainment, we’re lying our asses off. To ourselves, as well as everyone else.
Here’s why that matters. For the past week, America has been in a paroxysm of replay refereeing. Those of us on the liberal side of the aisle have been gloating a little, I’ll admit — but that’s mostly out of relief, because the election confirmed that 51% of the country has not drunk the Kool-Aid that the Republicans have been serving for the past 4 years plus or minus 30. Better to gloat than think about the fact that 48% of the country did drink that Kool-Aid, and would probably rather die than throw it up and swallow the antidote. (OK, that’s a really horrible metaphor. Sorry. Bad author.) There have been some good analyses of what happened on the Republican side of the aisle, and some good suggestions for the future from the Repubs’ ostensible target audience of white males, mostly amounting to “Republicans need to recognize that the country isn’t all straight white guys and you don’t get to run everything anymore. Grow the fuck up and share.” Which is nothing more than people of color and women have been saying for decades, but… well, we’ve already established that Republicans don’t listen much to folks like us.
These armchair quarterbacks are right. But they’re also wrong. The problem isn’t what they’re saying, but who they’re saying it to. They’re talking like this is just a Republican problem, a conservative problem, a white guy problem. No. The kyriarchy is systemic, and it is supported by everyone, not just by those at the top of the pyramid. We all need to recognize that the country isn’t straight white guys anymore. And we all need to change the way we’ve been doing things in recognition of this fact.
I’m saying “we” because even us black female anti-oppressionists slip, sometimes. I was surprised by the election results. Although I believed the statistics rather than the lies and damned lies (warning for batshittery), I honestly thought it would be a closer contest, not the electoral landslide we actually got. This is because I’d forgotten that hardline conservatives are only about 30% of the country — the rest of us are far more liberal, and always have been. How could I forget this? Well, I didn’t drink the Kool-Aid, but I tasted it. (OK! I said no more Kool-Aid! I mean it this time.) I let the fact that the 30% is overrepresented in our media — which gives it a much, much louder voice than it rightly should have — influence my thinking.
There was good reason for my anxiety beyond the Fox Noise machine, note. I worried that white women, in this even-more-racially-polarized-than-ever society, would fail to turn out at the polls, even though Romney was threatening their ability to control their own bodies. Throughout our history, in any critical juncture where race issues have been pitted against gender issues, white women have chosen to be white first and women second. I also feared that the Republicans’ efforts to suppress the vote among people of color and the working class in places like Florida would actually be effective. And they were. Took Florida fricking ages to finish counting the vote because of shenanigans like that. But I underestimated my own people — for whatever value of “my people” you want to use here, black or PoC or liberal or something else. I underestimated just how pissed off the majority of the country was over all this ridiculous shit. I heard the narrative being painted by all the white guys on both sides of the aisle — voter suppression — but I didn’t hear the narrative brewing among everyone else, which was aw hell no they ain’t takin’ my vote away. In retrospect, I don’t think the Democrats won this year because they’ve done such an awesome job of things. I think they won because the Republicans did an awesome job of pissing everybody but white Christian straight rich (etc) men off.
They should’ve seen it coming. But they have an excuse, though a shitty one; they weren’t paying attention. I’m the one who should’ve seen it coming.
Because, as a novelist, I’m part of the American media. I’m one of the people creating those insidious little narratives that influence your thoughts about the real world. I know the power of a narrative, and I should’ve realized that this one disguised a powerful and equally important subtext. I also should’ve realized there was more than one narrative at work — Theirs, and Ours. So this whole thing has served to remind me that, much as I champion the right of PoC and women and everyone else who’s gotten second, third, and no billing to take the center stage of American life, there’s still a part of me that has absorbed the bigoted messages of all the media I’ve consumed. They’re toxic, those messages, and incredibly virulent; takes nothing more than a glancing brush and they’re in you. Changing all your perceptions of reality, often in ways you don’t recognize ’til it’s too late.
Predators grossed $52 million at the box office — a moderately successful film by all accounts. For it to have earned that much, millions of people worldwide had to shell out a whole lot of money. To amuse themselves with two hours of rather blatantly misogynistic, homophobic, and white supremacist messages.
This is why I’m saying that it’s not just the GOP that needs to change. Our entire society needs to reorient itself. We need to examine every institution which purports to work for the American people, and ask ourselves whether the real complexity of the American people is represented within it. If not, we — all of us, not just the underrepresented people — need to advocate for change. Every liberal who’s laughing at conservatives right now needs to check themselves. Ask yourself how much of that stuff you bought into, even as you went to the polls. Then take it further. Ask yourself why we keep telling lies about our own history. (Hint: in reality, blacks were by no means passive or uninvolved.) Ask yourself why we swallow those lies, unchewed and untasted, and then gleefully finance more. Ask yourself why we so often blame women for men’s infidelities* — and paradoxically ask yourself why we think of women as prizes to be won, in real life as well as in film. Ask yourself why so many of us clutch pearls at the idea that our children might have a more fluid notion of gender and sexuality than we do. And then ask yourself why half this country seriously thought that pregnancy from rape was a good thing, that birth control is a bad thing, and that our president might be a foreign usurper hellbent on… fuck, I don’t know, destroying the world.
The modern GOP is a monster. I’m not defending it. It deserved the shellacking it got, and unless it changes then it is a mortal party doomed to die. I’m simply saying that we, as a society, have created that monster. We saw the early stages of transformation and failed to take action — probably because lesser monsters just like the big guy, are hidden in every level of our society. So we all bear responsibility for hunting these monsters down and shooting them in the head.
(Mightily resisting the temptation to work in a metaphor here about taking off and nuking the site from orbit. I think we can still salvage the country. I hope so.)
* That one’s courtesy of Justine Larbalestier, who happened to be ranting on Twitter about this very thing while I wrote this.