02 March 2014

Media representation, racism, and competence

Arthur Chu, the guy who got flak on the internet for being too good at the TV game show Jeopardy!, has some astute words about the logic of racist media representation:

That said, stereotypes aren’t so much about people totally projecting things that completely aren’t there but about people having a framework with which they interpret things that actually are there. It’s not that racism causes people to see (for example) belligerent teenage boys where there are none, but that a white belligerent teenage boy is just seen as himself while a black belligerent teenage boy is part of a pattern, a script, and when people blindly follow the scripts in their head that leads to discrimination and prejudice.

So yeah, it is a fact, I think, that I was a bit off-putting in my Jeopardy! appearance — hyper-focused on the game, had an intense stare, clicked madly on the buzzer, spat out answers super-fast, wasn’t too charming in the interviews, etc.

But this may have taken root in people’s heads because I’m an Asian and the “Asian mastermind” is a meme in people’s heads that it wouldn’t have otherwise. Look, we all know that there’s a trope in the movies where someone of a minority race is flattened out into just being “good at X” and that the white protagonist is the one we root for because unlike the guy who’s just “good at X” the protagonist has human depth, human relationships, a human point of view — and this somehow makes him more worthy of success than the antagonist who seems to exist just to be good at X.

So we root for Rocky against black guys who, by all appearances, really are better boxers than he is, because unlike them Rocky isn’t JUST a boxer, he has a girlfriend, he has hopes, he has dreams, etc. This comes up over and over again in movies where the athletic black competitor is set up as the “heel” — look at the black chick in Million Dollar Baby and how much we’re pushed to hate her. Look at all this “Great White Hope” stuff, historically, with Joe Louis.

So is it any surprise that this trope comes into play with Asians? That the Asian character in the movie is the robotic, heartless, genius mastermind who is only pure intellect and whom we’re crying out to be defeated by some white guy who may not be as brainy but has more pluck, more heart, more humanity? It’s not just Flash Gordon vs. Ming the Merciless, it’s stuff like how in the pilot episode of Girls Hannah gets fired in favor of an overachieving Asian girl who’s genuinely better at her job than she is (the Asian girl knows Photoshop and she doesn’t) and we’re supposed to sympathize with Hannah.

Okay, here’s one more comment from the Internet that kind of encapsulates it. The kind of un-self-awareness of what someone is saying when they say they’d prefer I not win because I try too hard at the game, work too hard at it, care too much about it, and that they’d prefer that a “likable average Joe” win.

This is disturbing because it amounts to basically an attack on competence, a desire to bust people who work very hard and have very strong natural gifts down in favor of “likable average Joes” — and it’s disturbing because the subtext is frequently that to be “likable” and “average” you have to have other traits that are comforting and appealing to an “average Joe” audience, like white skin and an American accent.

1 comment:

Adam said...

There's seems to be a strong correlation between "likeable Joe" theory of life and W's success in the White House. I'd go on, but it's Sunday and I'm exhausted.