Finding Truths N Hood Fiction

RJ Shamberger

Is race nothing more than a lived fiction? Or does race matter at all? I didn’t always know the answer to the question, then the world reminded me of my race and continuously showed me that I am in fact very different from those around me. The reminding moments did not always occur, and the vast majority of them have happened in the last five years of my life. Over the past half-decade, I have experienced two drastically diverse worlds that have taught me that race indeed does matter – and it matters a lot more than I would want.

Before I left for high school, race rarely crossed my naïve mind. Preceding that point, I started every day in my all black household and departed my majority black neighborhood for my ninety-nine percent black middle school. Everywhere I went, a comfortable sea of black faces continuously blanketed, and when anytime I looked into the mirror I saw myself – not my race. Early in my life, my parents ingrained in me the belief that I could be anything I put my mind to regardless of my situation – and looking back I realize that the faith manifested itself into a permanent destiny. I used to believe that the many problems people in my community and school faced were because there was something that they had or had not done in their lives. I was blind to the reason behind the issues those around me faced and quite frankly I didn’t care enough to learn. I honestly believed that my race played no part in whether or not I would live to see my dreams become a reality.

My understanding of American society remained fixed until I arrived on the campus of Deerfield Academy for my freshman fall term. Instantaneously, I was force fed every ounce of American racial relations as I struggled to learn the names of my elitist white classmates – the Rockefellers, the Waltons, the Kochs. I was mesmerized; however, I was further shocked to learn that there was only one black student in the senior class. Overwhelmed, I even went as far as opening my class representative speech with “I came here lost in a sea of whiteness,” only to replace whiteness later with the brilliance which seemed to be perfect synonyms. In America, whiteness is often characterized as mindfully brilliant and pure, while black is synonymous with unintelligent and vulgar. It was not until my time at Deerfield that I felt the pressures of being a black man in America. I realized that there is a blatant lack of equality among races because I knew that if my country was equal, then there should be more than one black student per grade in any preparatory institution.

From my personal experiences, I agree with the statement that race is nothing more than a biological lived fiction; however, since American society chose to live out the romance, race or its importance in society must not ever be neglected. If people never decided to bring attention to race and attach unseen characteristics to it then and only then would race not matter. Nevertheless, the United States chose for it to especially important. The most important event throughout the history of the United States was widespread of race-based slavery where millions of African-born slaves were brought to live as subordinates to the white majority. Initially, whites believed that racial slavery was justified as whites thought that they were biologically superior to the Africans. The justification was eventually outdated as slaves such as Frederick Douglass proved that individuals of African descent were fully capable of performing tasks that were deemed for whites only, yet it was not until decades later that blacks were no longer the physical property to whites. Although Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation granted blacks freedom, whites ensured that blacks were not treated as equal individuals for the following century as the battled for civil rights continued. As of today, the words of the United States’ Constitution states that blacks and whites are equals; however, these words are powerless to the actions of American history. There are bundles of systemic racism that remains in many institutions in the United States tended towards whites and the country as it stands is far from equal.

The film Boyz n the Hood expresses the daily and institutional struggles that various black communities in the United States deal with. The film takes place in urban South Central Los Angeles during the late twentieth century – more than one hundred years removed from the abolishment of slavery – and details the lives of three black youths – Tre, Ricky, and Doughboy – as they navigate the difficulties of their surroundings. First and foremost, the characters live in the ’hood as the title hints to, the term is slang for an impoverished majority black neighborhood. Each of the characters has complexities that set them apart, yet one thing stands constant – each of them is black. The presence of an entirely black cast provides an interesting paradox since the race is the continuous variable and it is logical to see how individuals can interpret the character’s varying reactions to their circumstance purely as poor decision making, yet I will quickly debunk that view. The film serves a definite purpose through telling the story of only black youths because many of the hardships that they face are mainly due to their skin color. Although there are times when character’s decision-making is vital, the film explains that the overarching problems at hand are due to situations that they cannot change and the systemically ingrained inequality in their community. One of such cases is when one of the three most famous characters, Ricky, is brutally murdered without much of any reasoning, and the immediate reaction by the fellow two protagonists, Doughboy and Tre, is to seek revenge.

The initial response by the two is entirely rational especially since Tre witnessed Ricky’s murder.  Tre and Doughboy are angry following the loss of their best friend, and they are forced into a difficult situation knowing that the shooter could just as easily killed either of them. Enraged the two seek revenge and plan to kill the murderer, but after taking some time to contemplate his actions Tre decides not to partake in the attack. Meanwhile, I cannot condemn Doughboy’s revenge as he is doing what he must to survive even. In Doughboy’s community, there is a kill or be killed reality, and is nothing more than a product of a torn community which has been institutionally disdained by the United States. I see Tre’s actions in the scene as astronomically courageous as he, unlike his peers, fights his natural inhibitions. The issues the two of them face stem from slavery and systemic oppression within the country and we should hail each character should serve as examples of what happens daily to black men.

During the century leading to the time of the film, the United States endured an era in which blacks migrated from plantations, and to the horrors of their former masters’, imaginations to segregated ghettos and the Jim Crow laws. In his article An American Tragedy: The Legacy of Slavery Lingers in our Cities’ Ghettos, Glenn C. Loury outlines the roots of the marginalization of blacks throughout the twentieth century and its current effects. He states: “The United States of America, ‘a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,’ began as a slave society. What can rightly be called the ‘original sin’ slavery has left an indelible imprint on our nation’s soul.” “No well-informed person denies this, though there is debate over what can and should be done about it. Nor do serious people deny that the crime, drug addiction, family breakdown, unemployment, poor school performance, welfare dependency, and general decay in these communities constitute a blight on our society virtually unrivaled in scale and severity by anything to be found elsewhere in the industrial West.”[1] Loury briefly summarizes many of the issues regarding black in the United States, all of which stem from slavery’s existence. Also, Loury directly challenges anyone who opposes his reasoning as simply not well-informed or ignorant to the issues that blacks face on a daily basis.

The United States government has succeeded in its suppression of the black community because the system now replicates itself without direct government intervention. The film includes an important scene in which the character Furious – Tre’s father – directly addresses the underlining oppression through the placement of gun and liquor stores as well as purposefully devaluing black-owned property. In perhaps most powerful lines in the film, Furious bluntly states, “They want us to kill ourselves. The best way you can destroy a people is if you can take away their ability to reproduce themselves.” Furious further explains that the gentrification of black neighborhoods and the fact that blacks are not creating the problems in their communities. Blacks are not directly responsible for bringing drugs into their communities nor the presence of gun and liquor stores on every street corner. The black community has been set up to fail by those who are responsible for the key issues – the white majority.

In the United, race matters and it or the issues it presents cannot be ignored. However, there are still instances in which racial differences or interactions are misconstrued – usually by whites – and we need to educate those who believe that race is not as important as it on truths of the country that they live. Although I do not condone the violence of black communities, I do understand why it occurs, and there are multiple examples of dangerous white ignorance that I could address. I found a simple showing of implicit racial discomfort in an essay published in the late twentieth titled The Negative Influence of Gangster Rap and What Can Be Done About It by Anthony M. Giovacchini. While attempting to break down rap music – of which he apparently doesn’t understand – Giovacchini incorrectly writes the lyrics and name of N.W.A.’s infamous Fuck tha Police. He instead wrote Fuck The Police and quoted the words: “Fuck the police coming straight from the underground /A young nigger got it bad ’cause I’m brown…”[2] Despite whatever point Giovacchini tried to make, he is clearly ignorant enough not even to get the song’s name or lyrics correct. More so, he commits the cardinal sin of using the real n-word, instead of nigga which is the right words. The n-word that he states is much different than the other term as most blacks refrain from ever mentioning it, and the significance of the disparity is expressly race-related, as one pertains to what others called blacks in a derogatory manner while blacks casually use the other.


As I have contemplated the significance of race in the United States over the course of my life, I now realize that race is important and I cannot ignore it. The black community has long endured many hardships because of their race, and I as a black man am a part of their struggle for equality. Thus, the duty I share with my fellow black people is to educate those on the truths of our situation in the country and prevent individuals from continuingly propagating obscene arguments that race does not matter – because it does and it stands at the core of many of the issues blacks in America face.


[1] Loury, Glenn C. “An American Tragedy: The Legacy of Slavery Lingers in Our Cities’ Ghettos.” Brookings. The Brookings Institution, 28 July 2016. Web. 16 Dec. 2016.


[2] Giovacchini, Anthony M. “The Negative Influence of Gangster Rap And What Can Be Done About It.” The Negative Influence of Gangster Rap And What Can Be Done About It. Ethics of Development in a Global Environment, 4 June 1999. Web. 16 Dec. 2016.


Peace, Love, Empathy, and Capitalism: The Commodification of the Grunge Movement

In October of 1993, two years after the release of their debut album, Ten, Eddie Vedder appeared on the cover of Time Magazine, screaming into a microphone with the caption “Angry young rockers like Pearl Jam give voice to the passions and fears of a generation.” Like George W. Bush saying that he listens to Kanye or Hillary Clinton wearing Adidas Superstar’s, Time’s cover was the voice of mothers everywhere asking about “that Eddie Vedder” and why he was so angry. Your parent finally knew why you were wearing flannel, Kurt Cobain scoffed, and Eddie declined comment, fearing the article was “the nail in the coffin” for the rock band who’s first two albums had already reached Billboard’s Top 10. It’s like giving a Nobel Prize to Bob Dylan— he never asked for this. You’re ruining his street cred, Mom.


When I brought up the idea of this essay in the context of grunge music, a friend of mine wondered if grunge was even rebellious and not just “a lot of angst and whining”. She then suggested I talk about the Sex Pistols or the Clash, real punk rock and mosh pits and combat boots and the implicated violence that followed. And she had a point. Sid Vicious might be our model for rebellion, especially considering the BBC kept God Save the Queen off of FM for as long as legally possible. But to dismiss grunge as angst rather than rebellion is both an inadequate depiction of the grunge movement itself and a disservice to the meaning of rebellion, as if to rebel must be insidiously violent or threatening—as if the act of angst and anger and suffering of grunge were not itself an act of rebellion. Grunge might not have the hair spikes or the safety pins, but its emergence during a time when heavy metal and synth music rained, and its crusade for authenticity and “realness” after weathering Reagan’s Morning in America, sets up grunge and the Seattle sound to be one of pop culture’s finest rebellions. This works itself out in a number of ways, some more obvious than others.

The most obvious is the very attitude of grunge, encapsulated in an “I don’t care” sneer that’s just as damning as the “fuck you” smirk of punk. The music itself, loud, aggressive, all garage-rock and sludge guitar and (conventionally) lacking melody, is a rejection of grunge’s predecessors. The style is almost just as important. In a time when Bowie is wearing elaborate costumes and assuming alternate identities and hair bands are all the rage, grunge bands promote their authenticity in their clothes. Flannel shirts, thrift shop shoes, band t shirts and the same jeans you wore to work that day—all culminating in oft unwashed hair. They don’t care what they’re supposed to be. They don’t care about presentation. They don’t care about your rules of hygiene. Much of what made grunge a rebellious movement was the context in which it blossomed. Cobain and Cornell and Mark Arm didn’t want to be Axl Rose, they didn’t even want to be Andy Wood. They rejected the theatrics, the performance, the costume and adornment. Grunge revolved around authenticity, and during the early 90s, authenticity was itself a rebellion.


It’s deeper than that too, though. In many ways, the authenticity of grunge produced a vulnerability and, in particular, a male vulnerability that had never been heard in rock. Beneath the “I don’t care” attitude and head thrashing beats are lyrics and frontmen from broken homes and unhappy childhoods. Vedder laments the lies and loss of his father in singles “Alive” and “Release”, the perverse lyrics of Nirvana’s “Rape Me” are more unsettling than they are either sexual or violent, and Temple of the Dog’s hit single in response to Andy Wood’s overdose and subsequent death describes the guilt of living, saying “I don’t mind stealing bread/ from the mouth of decadence/ But I can’t feed on the powerless/ when my cup’s already over-filled”. This is a male fragility that’s hardly displayed in society, front and center in grunge’s biggest acts. Joe Levy of Rolling Stone describes it in a Pearl Jam documentary saying: “Never before and never since, really, had men so successfully talked about the problems of, well, being men… In rock and roll that doesn’t usually happen.” Suddenly, the performance of masculinity that took form in the lyrics of everyone from Bon Jovi to Metallica was discredited. The sexual prowess of the hair bands and the violence of heavy metal was no longer axiomatic with being a man. Grunge rebelled from the conventional forms of masculinity and permitted men to feel, deeply, too, in a way that rock and roll had never before seen.

More than that, grunge went so far as to subvert traditional gender norms and to advance the feminist perspective, if only marginally. That Pearl Jam’s “Daughter” is written in the perspective of woman, and that it’s rejecting both the title and role of “daughter” given to her by an evidently oppressive father is not insignificant. Furthermore, cultural theorist Karen Aubrey credits the grunge movement with a certain amount of “gender-bending” in her essay Body Piercing: Gender Nihilism in the 90s. She describes the androgynous quality of grunge’s so-called uniform, claiming that the look is “based on the indistinguishable covering of those areas of the body which identify us as male or female… Standards of conventional sexual attractiveness, which encourage emphasis of gender designating body parts, are thereby not just ignored, but defied.” So we get Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love sharing a wardrobe and, if they’re both wearing glasses, we don’t know which is which. The flannels and baggy t-shirts are more than just the designated slacker uniform, in fact they’re a rebellion against the hetero and cisnormativity that characterizes the very world they’re railing against. Grunge is a formal de-sexualization of the body. Obscuring the of body shape, the gender bending of Kurt’s feather boas, but also the unwashed hair, Eddie Vedder launching himself from stage scaffolding into the crowd, and the utter lack of sexual content in most grunge songs all refute the body as a sexual object. In the same way that grunge rejects traditional masculinity, it also rejects the sex-god status of it’s predecessors. My body is not yours to sell, they might as well be screaming.

And then of course there’s Pearl Jam boycotting Ticketmaster and taking them to court, Pearl Jam refusing to do music videos and then, for a time, refusing to give interviews, Kurt Cobain dismissing MTV Video Music awards, Kurt Cobain dismissing Grammy nominations, Kurt Cobain attempting to reinforce his authenticity by calling Eddie Vedder “careerist”. All of this amounts to John Lennon asserting that the Beatles are bigger than Jesus, just multiplied by a few frontmen and repeated continuously for five or six years.

But nothing gold can stay.

In 1992 Nirvana appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone, Dave Grohl long-haired and gangly, Kris Novoselic bearded and good-natured, and Kurt Cobain wearing a t-shirt that reads “corporate magazines still suck”. By then, Nevermind, the band’s second record and first produced on a major label, was already certified gold and had replaced Michael Jackson as number one on the Billboard charts. It didn’t matter if corporate magazines still sucked, because Kurt would continue his rise to Gen-X messiah even after criticizing Pearl Jam’s Time cover, withdrawing from the public, cancelling tour dates, and eventually killing himself. NAFTA had been signed, Wall Street was deregulated, and the market was in control, even of the very thing that claimed to rage against it.


Carl Swanson characterizes the capitalisms co-opting of grunge in an article for New York Magazine, linking the commodification of rebellion with the rise of Bill Clinton and neoliberalism and ultimately asserting that “niche markets were becoming mainstream propositions—and soon gave us the entire gloriously fractured culture we’re unavoidably (and more often than not wirelessly) connected to today.” Atlantic Records bought an indie label, Marc Jacobs came out with a grunge line, and somehow Pulp Fiction was popular in the mainstream. Consumer culture had caught on with rebellion and began reproducing it tenfold.

Grunge’s authenticity is over almost before it begins. In Milan, the Perry Ellis collection that Marc Jacobs debuted for his 1993 spring show featured models in thousand dollar dresses, adorned with wool caps, unlaced doc martens, and “flannel” shirts tied around their barely-their waists (the “flannel” was actually silk and Jacobs claimed there wasn’t a single thread of polyester in the collection). Soon, grunge fashion appeared in department stores like Macy’s, only ten times the price of the thrift store jeans Novoselic is wearing on tour. Later that year, when Vedder would appear on the cover of Time, he denounced the idea of success that came along with it, claiming that it “could destroy everything. It can destroy what’s real…which is your life. It can make it a commodity.” In his suicide note, Cobain languishes for the lack of passion he feels for music, feeling as though he “should have a punch-in time clock before [he] walk[s] out on stage.” What was once an expression of anger and disgust and poetry is now an hourly wage job. What was once a revolt against the man has now been structured by the man. It’s no coincidence that you can buy t-shirts with Cobain’s hand-written suicide note across the chest. Peace, love, empathy, capitalism, right?


The music industry itself seemed to cannibalize grunge, too, not only exploiting and over-playing the already existing grunge bands, but searching everywhere for mildly angsty threesomes that they could dub “the next Nirvana”. Like The Monkees after The Beatles, bands that hailed from far outside of the Pacific Northwest were anointed “grunge” while Mudhoney and the Melvins remained fairly stuck in Seattle. Pearl Jam was recording with Epic Records, Nirvana left founding grunge label SubPop for Geffen, and Alice in Chains was with music conglomerate Columbia Records. Bands like Stone Temple Pilots, who were based in the corporate world of San Diego, were marketed as grunge band of the Pacific Northwest despite being an evolving alt-rock and glam-rock band. STP sold 40 million copies of their debut album Core while British band, Bush, and Australian band, Silverchair, found a seat on the bandwagon, each respectively considered one of the best grunge bands of all time. So much for Seattle.

In a genre that was founded on authenticity, and whose authenticity was rebellious in its very nature, the culture and music industries capitalized on the aesthetic of grunge while destroying its very basis. Without the angst and tortured introversion of Kurt and Eddie, without their humble upbringings and conscious efforts to subvert what was normal, what was dubbed the “Grunge Movement” became nothing more significant than greasy hair and a new way of dressing. The culture industry figured out how to co-opt the signifiers of youth rebellion and sell them as the real thing, voiding grunge of its vitality and filling consumers with pretensions of counter-culture.  Fashion and guitar cords and attitudes are easy to adopt and milk for all they’re worth—it’s the authenticity that was left at the wayside.

“Everybody loves us/ Everybody loves our town/ That’s why I’m thinking lately/ The time for leaving is now” – Overblown, Mudhoney

It’s three days into writing this paper by now and I’ve revisited all of my favorite documentaries and dug up old articles that repeat the same information, the same bits of the few MTV interviews that Pearl Jam and Nirvana actually did, the same grand message—these are tortured souls, thrust into a spotlight they never wanted, coming to terms with what it means to be authentic, what it means to be an artist, what it means to be a voice of a generation. I keep coming back to the moment during Pearl Jam’s 1994 performance on SNL, only days after Cobain’s suicide, where Eddie Vedder touches the “K” that was sharpied onto his shirt and ends their song Daughter with a whisper of Neil Young; “My my/ hey hey/ rock and roll will never die/ there’s more to the picture than meets the eye.” Cobain’s suicide letter (still available for purchase) famously quotes the line “it’s better to burn out than to fade away” of the very same song, shifting the unbearable burden of speaking for an entire generation to the shoulders of Young. Perhaps for Cobain the weight was finally lifted.


At the time of his death, Cobain’s estimated net-worth hovered somewhere around $100 million and, by 2015, had reached $450 million as Nirvana singles continued to sell and be streamed online. Forever 21 sells t-shirts to teenage girls with Nirvana’s cross-eyed smiley face on the front while Timberland and Doc Marten stocks have continued to rise since the grunge era and Pearl Jam never did take down Ticketmaster. Along with the grotesque sums of wealth amassed with grunge’s commodification came the myriad of critical reviews (not unlike my own) that call Cobain and Vedder and the whole movement a sham for being so undefinable. Grunge, outside of the definition that corporate America has given it, is remarkably difficult to pin down, particularly in terms of sound. Nirvana is not Pearl Jam is not Alice in Chains is not Tad is not Mudhoney—often they don’t even sound alike. What’s lost in all the theory and analytics and claims for authenticity is the very real, very tangible, human toll. Cobain is dead, Vedder was close, Pearl Jam is the only band from that era still playing, and grunge has become a cultural phenomenon and Kurt Cobain a token phrase, disassociated from the very real man, the very real sufferer that he was. The effect of the commodification of grunge, of any counter-culture movement, is the dehumanization of the subject and an exercise in making protest, art, poetry, and expression desperately futile. We, the consumers, are estranged from the very people we believe to be our very own individualized prophets, and they, are rendered martyrs for a cause they set out to defy.

It’s Rebellion Actually

America’s culture is distinctive because of its adolescent nature. From our usurpation against our mother country until now, our culture as a whole has retained distinctive qualities that are clearly adolescent. Clotaire Rapaille in his book The Culture Code explains this observation about American culture while also delving deeper into the exploration of human motivations within a culture. Rapaille claims that the culture in which we live out our early childhoods permanently influences the way we think and more specifically the way we act as adult consumers. Our reasons for choosing one marketing strategy over another are coded in the associations advertisements make with their products. His process into determining what he calls “on code” or “off code” for a specific culture includes looking into the emotional attachments that we form with particular objects and ideas from an early age. As most of us have experienced adolescence is a time where we go from being completely dependent on adults for our survival to a limbo where we’re trying to assert our independence and create an identity away from our parents. In short, adolescence is our rebellious stage, and the United States is stuck in it. As Rapaille would say, rebellion is “on code” in American culture, and the culture industry consciously capitalizes on our inclination towards items associated with rebellion by selling us on rebellion instead of the functionality of the actual product.

The commodification of rebellion can be clearly seen in the 2015 Miss Dior commercial starring Natalie Portman as a runaway bride. Because Dior is a French company that sells in the United States as well as in other countries around the world, my analysis of how it profits off of the American predilection for rebellion will be based off of what the average American consumer might have seen on their television set and not on the official director’s cut. The commercial versus the original short film have many similarities; however, the commercial version is very pointedly aimed at the American consumer while the official cut’s message is a little more obscure as it’s more than twice as long and aimed at a more global audience. All of the thought put into constructing this advertisement, was directed at associating the wearer of this perfume with someone who doesn’t follow social norms. Specifically the dialogue, the color choice, and background music all came together to sell the consumer on this rebellious perfume.


The Dialogue

Throughout the commercial there is very little dialogue, but perhaps the most framing exchange occurs at the beginning between Portman and a bellhop. The scene starts with Portman in her wedding dress opening a hotel room door, and a bellhop offering her a bouquet while saying in a distinctly French accent, “Your flowers, Madam.” To which Portman quickly replies, “It’s Miss actually.” Portman’s response highlights her capacity for independence and shows her reluctance to allow her identity to be tied to a man, a clear feminist sentiment. This distinction between an unmarried and married woman underscores the existence of male dominance, so her correction can be seen as her taking back control. The commercial then plays out by cutting to Portman walking down the aisle, but then stopping right before her and her father reach the groom. Just before she spins around and runs away, she turns to her father and says, “I’m sorry Dad.” This moment clearly reinforces the rebellion that this company is trying to sell you. In this moment, Portman is the teenager not following what her parents want her to do, and in a more general sense a woman defying society’s expectations for her to marry.

The Color Choice

There is a distinctive shift in the filming that parallels Portman’s shift from a traditional female role, i.e. bride and wife, to a modern female in charge of her sexuality. This large shift is illustrated by switching from filming in black and white to filming in color. Inherently we associate black and white television with the mid-twentieth century, where women were still largely oppressed and not seen as equal to men. This can be exemplified in popular black and white television shows in the 1950s including I Love Lucy and The Donna Reed Show. When the camera shifts from black and white to color, the sense of liberation that the viewer feels as she empathizes with Portman, is emphasized by the return to modern, colorful television. This shift from oppression to liberation is subconsciously linked to the use of the perfume this commercial is selling even though the perfume isn’t mentioned until the last 3 seconds of the commercial.

In addition, Portman’s change in outfit is also significant. As soon as Portman reaches the end of the aisle she kicks off her heels, a symbol of her femininity that literally restricts her mobility, and takes off in a run. From this rejection of a typical standard of beauty, the viewer is again reminded of the rebellious nature of Portman. By removing her heels she is removing the control that men have over her life. I think that the fact she is running to another man though allows the commercial to be rebellious and feminist just enough that it’s not off-putting or “off-code”. Another symbolic moment is when she takes off her wedding dress to reveal a shorter black dress underneath. And while she still remains in a dress so as not to completely remove her femininity, the color shift from white to black is significant. White carries the connotations of pure, traditional, orderly and angelic, where black is related with dirty, edgy, chaotic and rebellious. And while we clearly see the feminist undertones in the coloring choices, we also see the reluctance to completely abandon gender norms.

Piece of My Heart- Janis Joplin

The background music in commercials is a key contributor in conveying what the advertiser is attempting to get across. The director of the commercial, Anton Corbijn, said in regards to the choice of a Piece of My Heart covered by Janis Joplin that plays throughout the entire commercial, “It took a long time to find the music, and this choice seemed to fit perfectly from all angles, including the song’s meaning.”(Monlos) Research shows that music is capable of eliciting all different iterations of human emotion (Ahtisaari and Karanam). Advertising exploits music’s direct connection to our emotions. As I said earlier, Rapaille’s argument about distinct culture codes is based in the claim that we form emotional attachments to objects and ideas. If music is the gateway to our emotions, than the choice of music is key in advertisements to tap into our emotional attachment to something and connect it with the product they’re attempting to sell us. Corbijn recognized how crucial the song choice was. He used the background music to set the mood for the commercial.

Joplin’s voice is strong and rough sounding, and it’s accompanied by a distinctly rock instrumental arrangement. The commercial also paired pivotal moments in the commercial with powerful vocal points. For example, as Portman turns her back on the wedding and begins running away the song begins to build through repetition. The lyrics read, “I want you to come on, come on, come on, and take it.” The commercial times the lyrics “take it” with the moment Portman throws her bouquet over her shoulder. This scene in the commercial is another play on rebelling against tradition and social norms. Conventionally, the bride throws her bouquet and the single women at the wedding attempt to catch it because whoever is lucky enough to catch it is superstitiously thought to be the next person to get married. This scene is mocking the tradition as the commercial makes sure the viewer gets a close up of the bouquet landing in the dirt. In a way, this symbolic visual of the bouquet landing in the dirt is a way of insinuating that the idea that women are all just waiting to be married is dead, and this point is furthered by the accompanying dramatic music.


All of these specific choices added together reinforce the idea that advertisements are selling something more than just a product. The Miss Dior perfume bottle isn’t at all present in the commercial until the last three seconds, so one would think that in terms of selling the product it does a poor job, but what the commercial does so successfully is elicit the emotional response of rebellion and then in the final three seconds while these emotions are still fresh leaves you with the perfume. We don’t consciously absorb the attachment made between Miss Dior and rebellion, but that’s what makes a good commercial. The culture industry has recognized the significance of rebellion in our culture and capitalized on this “on code” American ideal. This exploitation our adolescent culture is beyond ironic. Rebellion, what the United State’s mere existence holds up as the path to greatness, is now a commodity to be bought and sold by unthinking consumers.



Works Cited


Adlman, Nicole. “Natalie Portman Is a Runaway Bride in New Dior Commercial—

Watch the Short Film!” E! Online. N.p., 03 Feb. 2015. Web. 13 Dec. 2016.




Ahtisaari, Markho, and Ketki Karanam. “Music and Emotion.” THE SYNC PROJECT

. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Dec. 2016. <



Monllos, Kristina. “Natalie Portman, a Runaway Bride, Gets a Helicopter Rescue in Miss

Dior Ad.” AdWeek. N.p., 6 Feb. 2015. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.




Rapaille, Clotaire. The Culture Code: An Ingenious Way to Understand Why People

            around the World Buy and Live as They Do. New York, NY: Broadway, 2007.


Racial Undertones in Pop Culture and their Divisive Impact on Viewers

Happy Feet seems to be a pleasing and lighthearted children’s film about bravery and independence. The film tells a story about a penguin named Mumble who is excluded by his fellow Emperor penguins because he is unable to sing as they can. Mumble can only dance, and the other penguins dislike him for this difference. Eventually, however, Mumble and some other outcast friends are able to resolve the famine that plagues the penguins by convincing humans to stop fishing in the area, an achievement that is rewarded with acceptance back into Emperor Land. While seemingly positive and pleasant, Happy Feet is grossly misunderstood, as it is actually shadowed by deep racial undertones. Racial scripts are thus present in popular movies like Happy Feet, but what are their implications?

The image of whiteness is a complex matter. Aside from appearances, white identity is a complex and pervasive web that frequently evades recognition (Leonard 224). This is largely because whites are not limited by their race– white privilege– so there theoretically are no obvious white properties to be named (Dyer 39). Furthermore, the differences that are brought forth relegate whiteness as a cultural norm, rather than as a race like all others, which are simply diversions from it (Dyer 1, Ilmi 219). Happy Feet therefore racializes by presenting characters with non-white-esque characteristics that seem far removed from white culture.

The most obvious racializing in Happy Feet is of Hispanics. Mumble stumbles upon a group of outcast penguins named Ramon, Raul, Nestor, Lombardo, and Ronaldo who have nicknamed themselves “The Amigos”. The Amigos all have hispanic accents and speak with slang language (“Kiss it [my ass]”, “Come on, bro”, “You’re loco, man” (Happy Feet)). The Amigos also resemble stereotypical hispanics in their appearances; they are short and fat in comparison to the Emperor penguins. The Amigos are clearly meant to represent Hispanics within the penguin community; they are therefore outcast from Emperor Land.

The Amigos.

The Amigos.

Several other minority groups are also represented in the penguin world of Happy Feet. There are a group of darkly colored hawks that speak with stereotypically African-American accents; furthermore, this group is quite violent in that they try to kill Mumble and attack one another in pursuit of the meal. There is also an outcast penguin who claims to be a fortuneteller– he has been “bestowed by magical beings” with a “sacred” plastic 6-pack wrapper around his neck. In the end, however, he is exposed as a fraud; this appears to be an attack upon Native Americans and their emphasis on spirituality. Yet another racialized animal group comes in a group of elephant seals who have long, sac-like noses that strongly resemble penises, which they suck until a white, cum-like substance sprays Mumble and the Amigos in the face (Happy Feet). These elephant seals are portrayed as not only unabashedly foul, but also as seemingly queer.

Elephant seal.

Elephant seal.

Mumble is also thrown into the group of outcasts, in part because of his coloring, which is much less distinct than the clear, divisive lines between black and white skin of the other Emperor penguins. Although he is technically white, Mumble is not “pure” like the emperors, who are able to distinguish themselves clearly from the “minority” penguins, like the clear-cut colors on their backs. There is one scene in particular that highlights these color differences; at the penguin’s school graduation, the graduates toss some of their cleanly white feathers in the air, while Mumble’s lone grey fuzzy feather floats sadly on the wind (Happy Feet). This color contrast adds to the list of characteristics that inferiorize certain penguins in Happy Feet.

While Happy Feet typifies non-whiteness in penguins through their language habits and physical appearances, whiteness is much more difficult to represent. White people are not limited by their race because of white privilege; since race is most obviously biological and of the body, this also means that white people are not contained by, or limited to, their bodies. “Above all, the white spirit could both master and transcend the white body, while the non-white soul was a prey to the promptings and fallibilities of the body” (Dyer 23). This bigger-than-the-body white ideal has also been furthered by the principles of Christianity. “Not only did Christianity become the religion, and religious export, of Europe… it has also been thought and felt in distinctly white ways for most of its history… It posits that somehow there is in the body something that is not of the body which may be variously termed spirit, mind, soul, or God” (Dyer 17, 16). Whiteness has come to be associated both with Christianity and with the ability to transcend the body.

Penguin hierarchy in Emperor Land is determined in both of these ways. The head penguin speaks religiously in sermons, and is named like so as Noah. He says things like “our forefathers forsook our flippers”, and encourages the other Emperor penguins to be “sincere in their praise” while leading them in chanting prayers (Happy Feet). He also speaks with a Scottish accent, which epitomizes him as belonging one of the “most white” nationalities. These types of Christian and Scottish similarities bring along connotations of “whiteness” such as purity, holiness, and cleanliness of blood– none of which are present in any way in the Latino-esque group of penguins.–2006-animation.html

The Christian, and therefore white, ability to transcend the body is also highlighted in Happy Feet. The penguins of Emperor Land believe in the power of “heart-songs”, which are songs borne naturally to a penguin’s soul. The quality of a penguin’s heart-song and of their singing voice plays a big role in their social status; at one point, onlooker penguins say “A penguin without a heart song is hardly a penguin at all” (Happy Feet). The deeper significance of a beautiful heart-song and voice, however, is the ability to leave the body through sound, which is a distinctly white characteristic. Mumble, therefore, is a lesser penguin because he lacks the fundamental white trait of body transcension in his lack of a heart-song. This is also how he gets his name; to mumble is to fail to expel a sound successfully.

Mumble is stuck inside his body, so he is forced to turn to dancing to express himself. Dancing, however, is something that in modern culture is associated with minorities, particularly latinos and blacks. “White people can’t dance”– a superficial joke about white people, but it points to the fact that blacks and latinos can. This logic also applies to modern sports, as African-Americans are typically seen as more athletic than whites (Leonard 220). These forms of expression imply bodily trappings in the case of non-whites. Mumble, cast as an outcast alongside the minority-resembling penguins, is chastised by his father, “I wouldn’t do that around folks, son… it just ain’t penguin, okay?” (Happy Feet). Mumble’s dancing resembles the bodily trappings of non-whites, therefore making him an inferior penguin in Emperor Land.

These differences serve distinct purposes in Happy Feet; they make the non-Emporer penguins seem so far from the Emperor penguins that they are outcast until the very end. The minority penguins are eventually accepted into Emperor land, but only after they are able to stop humans from fishing in their waters, thereby proving themselves as worthy of acceptance to the Emperor penguins. This theme is recurring in many popular and children’s movies; How to Train Your Dragon, for example, tells the story of a Viking boy who is outcast for his favorability to a jet-black dragon– a color choice that likely presents racial undertones– until he unintentionally assists the Vikings in discovering the dragon’s nest, thereby proving his worth despite the unusual company he keeps. In addition to the setup for a later acceptance, another purpose of differentiating certain characters is to provide for the trivialization of their roles. Happy Feet’s tendency to incorporate minorities in an insignificant way, for example, resembles Laura Mulvey’s argument about women; “The presence of women is an indispensable element of spectacle in the normal narrative film, yet… ‘In herself the woman has not the slightest importance’” (Mulvey 398). Characters such as the homosexual elephant seal and the seemingly African-American hungry hawks exist purely to make the viewers laugh, but their insignificance also contributes to the racializing in Happy Feet.

Mumble dancing unabashedly. Note his grey coat-- he's different than the other Emperor penguins.

Mumble dancing unabashedly. Note his grey coat– he’s different than the other Emperor penguins.

Laura Mulvey argues that modern movie technology and director choices have become so developed that movies can feel like real experiences for viewers. She describes Hitchcock, “[the] hero does see precisely what the audience sees… Hitchcock draws the spectator’s deeply into his position” (Mulvey 401). This state means that viewers are easily imprinted upon, and this viewing lens is equatable to a “white gaze” through which minorities are depicted as racialized others (Ilmi 218). Films “construct social meanings… ‘Media culture also provides the materials out of which many people construct their sense of class, of ethnicity and race… of ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Movies manufacture the way we see, think of, feel and act toward others’” (Leonard 223). It is through the often unrealized power of the media that pop culture is able to adjust viewer’s attitudes towards race.

Viewers absorb lessons from and are impacted by movies they watch (Mulvey); in the case of race, pop culture often increases viewers’ propensity to see minorities as “other” by highlighting differences; Happy Feet does this through bodily appearances, the ability to transcend the body, accents and language tendencies, and the need for those who are different to prove themselves as worthy of acceptance. “Mass culture is the contemporary location that both publically declares and perpetuates the idea that there is pleasure to be found in the acknowledgement and enjoyment of racial difference” (Hooks 424). Identification and emphasization of differences between people– even meaningless ones that have nothing actually to do with biology– feature in pop culture far more frequently than viewers realize. The presence of this ideology in pop culture consequently plays a big role in influencing race in modern society– often in negative, divisive ways. Those whose differences are highlighted in popular movies, “whose image has continually been stolen and used for this end, cannot view the decline of the traditional film form with anything much more than sentimental regret” (Mulvey 403).

Works Cited

Dyer, Richard. “Entertainment and Utopia.” 1977. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 271-83. Print.

Hooks, Bell. “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance.” Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks. By Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas M. Kellner. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001. 424-38. Print.

Ilmi, Ahmed. “The White Gaze vs. the Black Soul.” Race, Gender & Class 18.3/4 (2011): 217-29. JSTOR. Web. 14 Dec. 2016.

Leonard, David J. “Do You Believe in Miracles? Whiteness, Hollywood, and a Post-9/11 Sports Imagination.” All-Stars and Movie Stars: Sports in Film and History. N.p.: U of Kentucky, 2008. 219-36. JSTOR. Web. 14 Dec. 2016.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” The Sexual Subject: A Screen Reader in Sexuality. New York: Routledge, 1992. 393-404. Print.

Mean Girls and Male Dominance in Feminism

Among millennials, Mean Girls is one of the most well-known films of the past decade. It’s written by the highly-acclaimed comedian Tina Fey, who “you can never give … too much credit for [steering] popular culture” (Yarnall), and it is lauded for being an integral part of today’s “new wave of female comedy,” which many consider to be a “new space … [that] feminism is disruptively creating.” (The Times). But the movie is riddled with latent patriarchal sentiment that doesn’t pass as “just a joke” to be cast aside and deemed unimportant; the film itself doesn’t even seem aware of it. The desired feminist story is subverted by non-feminist means, and the movie actually arrives at an unexpected, yet somehow unsurprising, assertion.

The motion picture unintentionally falls back into pop culture’s pattern of male domination by placing men at the center of women’s plotlines. In fact, much of the movie is simply the aftermath of meeting a boy. Essentially, the protagonist develops a crush on the man sitting in front of her in math class, and she is henceforth doomed to exist for male attention. The character learns to wear makeup, style her hair, and clothe herself with the goal of gaining the attention of men, both character and viewer. But it’s not just her.

A female teacher is seen topless in the first few minutes of the film (in which she is simultaneously reduced to a divorcée whom a man is attracted to). The protagonist’s mother is never in a scene without her husband, although he can exist without her just fine. And another mother is only ever alone, but she, in compensation for lacking a male presence, is emphasized as having the same male-driven propensity for maintaining appearance as the teenaged girls.

While the film plays out, the characters’ struggles fluctuate and grow; yet in the end they can all be solved by a man. Specifically, the movie’s denouement is codependent to the pairing of each woman with a man. Once this happens, the chaos that stemmed from being independent of men is appeased and turned to harmony.

Some might say that the motion picture asserts, and brings viewers to agree, that female desire for male attention is a frivolous tendency, since comedic material is drawn from it. But when the underlying concept that women are unable to exist in film without a dependency on men is actually maintained by the final conclusion of the film, the satire of these instances is nullified.

The film also invites viewers to regard women as men would—for pleasure. This of course entails that the film is heteronormative, but more on that later. The women of the film are consistently portrayed as being one of two things: intensely worried about how their bodies are viewed, or flaunting them. (How could they exist without fashioning some relation to men?)

This corporeal focus is terribly clear in the fact that the most popular girls in the school are known as The Plastics. They have achieved social importance and high ranking by being the most attractive, to such a degree that they’re directly associated with plastic surgery—which, in its own right, is referenced quite a number of times. But in order to maintain their appearance, they must have the utmost scrutiny with their own bodies. There are always wrongs they must try to better or fix, or simply bemoan. “God! My hips are huge.” “Oh, please. I hate my calves.” “I’ve got man shoulders.” “My hairline is so weird.” “My pores are huge.” “My nail beds suck.” (19:38) Altering their physical appearance to be rid of these anxieties allows the girls to be teen royalty on campus, with Regina (Latin for “queen”) as their head.

And on the other side of the social desirability spectrum are the “desperate wannabes” (9:43). The girls with abnormal bodies: the physically disabled, small in stature, and fat. They display the unattractive qualities that The Plastics vehemently avoid, to such a degree that they are just to be laughed at, used as oddities to execute the film’s jokes. Or they are just the ones we hope will get prettier, we hope will somehow gain the means to attract a man. They are, in fact, only accepted into the main cast as reward for showing up made prettier, for wearing a dress or having intricately styled hair.

So these women have the opportunity to gain their importance in the movie, but what if men can’t gain pleasure from the character? What fate is he/she left to? It seems the male dominance of film is fraught with intricacies in how the male gaze should address those who innately lack the possibility of providing pleasure to straight men.

Homosexuality is shunned and made “other”, that much is clear. In providing a male dominated view of women’s existence and bodies, the motion picture must address how that gaze will react to non-heterosexuality. One major aspect to investigate in this movie is the inclusion of a heavily stereotypically gay character as one of the protagonist’s two main friends. In his case, the film can’t hide behind social-norm-attacking comedy, the joke is that he is flamboyant, fashion-driven, beauty product knowledgeable, and sassy – among other stereotypes. There is no societal prodding or questioning, it’s just funny that he’s so gay (as the currently derogatory phrase goes).

The movie has by this point made an intention to both laugh at and use the non-normal, seemingly because it means that the person can’t build the necessary relationship with a man that they require to be significant. In the case of this friend, there is not a single other homosexual man, presumably, in the entire school (certainly not to any extent pertinent enough to be mentioned and which comes into great importance later on). There is, however, a looming, fluctuating, threat of female homosexuality.

An interesting pattern in our culture is the greater acceptance for women to behave more masculine than for men to behave more feminine. This extends into the film during the scenes of girl-on-girl aggression being cheered on by bystander men (as Sarah Hartzell puts it, “for the realization of a man’s vision … violence against women is ‘worth it.’”), and even more so in scenes of sexual girl-on-girl action. Even just the stating of phrases like “girl-on-girl” and “the girls have gone wild” proposes the notion of sex between women (which viewers are expected to enjoy) (1:07:44).

So women leaning towards homosexuality is acceptable and encouraged – when in front of men. It is strikingly not so when amongst only women. And this is where the protagonist’s other friend comes in. We see this friend struggle with The Plastics’ belief and gossiping that she is lesbian. She had actually been “best friends” with Regina, head of The Plastics, until they started to think she was homosexual. “I couldn’t have a lesbian at my party,” Regina recounts of their falling out (33:50). There is an apparent duality behind when it’s okay, correlating to when it can be used to gain more male attention.

So, there is the momentarily funny and quickly forgotten gay friend, who is used to humorously tokenize gay males through his stereotypes and singular incidence, and the girl friend who epitomizes the constant reluctance women should feel to separate from the fetishistic bond they have with men. It is interesting then to see how these characters come out in the end. The girl friend who had been all but accused of lesbianism, ends up with a man (we see them in the final scene kissing on the lawn of the school). Thus, she is happy and unconditionally welcomed into the clique. Yet, in the same scene, as the camera pans to show each character harmoniously being brought into the group, the gay friend is notably left out.

Some might argue that his presence in itself includes him in the revelry, but it’s important to understand how he is presented among the others, and in the context of the overall motion picture. He’s there, but he has gained nothing, he’s not happier in the end. And according to the gender script of the film, this would be because heterosexual men don’t get pleasure from homosexuality in other men, no matter the condition. So the girl friend can be happy and accepted at the end, despite her ostensible transgressions, and the gay friend is doomed to be unhappy and unimportant.

Mean Girls is known as “one of the most quoted movies of all time … nestled into the hearts of fans” (Yarnall). Teaching girls to reject aggressive behavior towards each other, it is praised for the advancement of feminist beliefs and practices. But in its declaration of these notions, it upholds the dominant position of men in determining a woman’s worth. It tells female viewers that as long as they are able to relate themselves to a man’s pleasure, even by just successfully eliciting his attention, they will be happy and important. If you cannot, as gay men are doomed to be unable and lesbian women threaten to be, you will be neither happy nor important (at least not increasingly). A normative ending resolves the purposely overdone patriarchy that Fey used to make a point, and ironically sweeps feminism (and her point) under the rug. With a musical adaptation in the works, it turns out Tina Fey may actually have to consider rewriting this iconic script, if she is willing to lose fans over a potentially unsatisfying ending.

(might as well watch it again, basically all my points in 3 mintues of the film)

Works Cited

“How to Work The Red Carpet – And Other Lessons From Amy Schumer.” The Times: 16. Sep 17 2016.

Hartzell, Sarah. “What it Means to be a Woman in Film.” University Wire. Dec 07 2016.

Mean Girls. Dir. Mark Waters. By Tina Fey. Perf. Lindsay Lohan and Rachel McAdams. Paramount Pictures, 2004.

Schilling, Mary Kaye. “Tina Goes to War.” Town and Country: 14. April 2016.

Yarnall, Erin. “Mean Girls’ Celebrates 10 Years as One of our Generation’s most Iconic and Quotable Films.” University Wire. Feb 23 2016.

Inception, Gender Politics, and Perspective: Answering the Masculine Malaise

Christopher Nolan’s filmography seems “driven by a deep-seated desire to satisfy the so-called ‘masculine malaise’, in which it will be understood that he offers his male (anti-)heroes the fictional means and pathways to ‘un-truths’ to transcend the limitations of their ‘fractured’ male existence” (Deakin 85). The various crises of modern masculinity—a set of problems ill-defined in the concrete but best named as the perception of the loss of masculine power and identity on systemic and individual levels—come to a head for Nolan’s characters. Leonard asserts himself and his right to vengeance in Memento’s anonymized world. Bruce Wayne transcends the confines of his playboy archetype to become a hyper-masculine hero in the Batman trilogy. And Inception’s Dom Cobb seeks to return to being a father but must first overcome his malignant deceased wife,[1] in sum needing to defeat the feminine to reach his masculine destiny. For Cobb, does Deakin’s perspective hold up? Is his ‘masculine malaise’ solved by letting him transcend reality (in whatever sense that word can describe the film) or through another solution?

Answering those questions about Inception’s perspective gender politics requires answering another question first, specifically as to how the camera connects on-screen action to the audience. During dialogue, Nolan likes to shoot from the person talking at the person listening. When the conversation is between Ariadne and Cobb, he portrays them differently. As Ariadne talks, we still see her head in the corner of the shot. But as Cobb talks, he disappears as the camera watches Ariadne. The camera can be construed as coming from the man, but refuses to identify with a woman.

From the opening scene, the movie constructs the world through male eyes. The movie’s starting scene contains a shot of Cobb’s children playing on the beach that reappears marked clearly as his memory later in the movie.[2] This memory returns later in one of the floors of the dream world Cobb enters every night. It also is plucked from the beach and placed into different dream levels during the titular mission to indicate the fragility of his mental state. Only Cobb can see this shot; the movie begins inside his head and with his eyes. In the opening conversation with Saito, the camera does not employ the perspective reversals of Ariadne and Cobb’s conversation. Instead, as the camera switches focus from Cobb to the corporate mogul and back, the camera can legitimately serve as the perspective of either. While Cobb talks, a wine glass ever-so-briefly crosses the shot—an intentional yet subtle acknowledgment of the first-person perspective of the camera. The movie introduces itself as the product of masculine perspectives, and then lets Ariadne in primarily to be observed.

(watch the beginning 35 seconds to see Cobb’s memory; watch closely around 2:24-2:26 to see the wine glass)

If this view of the movie is right, then watching Inception turns its viewers into men, exiting the theater having spent two hours seeing the world as men see it. The consequences of this should be clear. To name them, the movie would have forced audience identification with masculinity, likely in conjunction with perceiving the feminine as simultaneously worse-than-men and dangerous to men, and erecting one more roadblock to female representation[3] in film.

Looking at where the movie doesn’t get dominated by men—where it either takes the camera from masculine perspective, extends it to feminine perspectives, or does both—should indicate the limits (if any) to this Mulvey-esque perception of Nolan’s camera as a fundamentally male gaze. One such example comes from Ariadne’s first dream creation, as Cobb teaches her the tricks of his peculiar trade. As she alters the underlying physics of the dream, she alienates Cobb’s subconscious and its manifestations in ‘projections’ of people. The camera adopts her perspective so it can portray a masculine subconscious directing its antagonism at the camera. If the movie’s perspective indicates a sort of audience alignment with whoever it represents, then Inception would seem to display the fears of women threatened by strangers in public spaces. Sympathy for cat-calling victims seems to be at odds with a masculine-controlled camera. Later in the same scene, the camera ever-so-briefly adopts Ariadne’s perspective again as she is stabbed by Mal. The adoption of the point-of-view shot to witness first-hand violence against women—to make the viewer a victim of phallic violence—seems to indicate a dynamic more complex[4] than the masculine gendering of the camera and bond between it and the audience.

(watch around 1:50-2:05 to see the first set of POV shots; watch around 4:15-4:19 closely to see the second set)

A similar complication comes in the reversal of masculine technique from before. I mentioned the way the camera refused to be point-of-view for certain characters. After entering Cobb’s dreams uninvited, Ariadne discovers his continual engagement with and attempts to fix his past, and challenges him. When she does so, the angle repeats the techniques of prior conversations, but flips the gender of each. The viewer now sees a foregrounded corner of Cobb, preventing the camera from being mistaken for an extension of the scene’s masculine presence. The double-sided deployment of this technique and the allowance of some POV shots to be both feminine and depicting violence against women indicate cracks in a belief of the always-masculine viewer relating to POV as his own. But it doesn’t, and shouldn’t, fully disprove the thought. The broader undermining of this theory of the movie comes from the unmooring of its assumptions of characters’ fixed and easily understood gender roles.

The first challenge for this narrative is the movie’s own Gender-Bender, Eames, who shifts shapes and genders. Within dreams, he serves as both a rich, flushed old man and a pretty young woman, convincing his mark with each. The film places an emphasis on him learning others’ mannerisms in addition to replicating their appearance. Gender fluidity exists because gender is a learned behavior, not a strict one. This both pulls the rug out from understandings of perspective dependent upon rigid gender distinctions; Saito was even fooled by the convincing gender performance of Eames, which nods to the socially constructed role of gender and casts doubt upon masculinity and femininity as occupying two separate, distant planets.[5]

Eames on the left

Eames, again on the left


Eames’ performance moves us closer to a broader gender-bending element of the movie, namely the fact that one of the two women is really just a man. Mal is introduced as an oppositional force to Dom, but later revealed to be a projection of his subconscious. The feminine threat of the film reveals itself as coming from a masculine force. There are a couple implications here that I feel the need to describe. As an initial note, this offers another chance to display gender as performed; Cobb’s subconscious contains a significant feminine presence, which he does not display but does at least possess. The public self can be hyper-masculine while the body still hosts multiple gender identities. Next, this complicates the already mentioned understanding of the stabbing shot of Ariadne. Before, the choice of a woman carrying a knife could be the temporary masculinization of Mal, as the weapon “represents male power and violence” (Indick 39). But the decision to use a knife, a penetrative object, instead of a gun or other weapon, represents the true nature of Mal and reinforces the masculine violence of the phallic stand-in of the POV shot, which certainly discredits any understanding of the viewer as a heterosexual male scopophile. The last note of interest is how this interacts with Deakin’s claims. To him, Mal’s character is the current iteration of Nolan’s “seeming myopic sense of female malignity” (Deakin 93). The movie certainly introduces her that way, but over time her villainy becomes a product of Cobb, as an invention of either his mind or victim of his first attempt at inception. Male mistakes causing guilt in the male subconscious does not seem to be a cause for “female malignity” of any sort.

Don’t believe this? Look to the film’s construction of male nostalgia, which ostensibly provides the emotional charge to Cobb’s goals. He wants the golden-tinged domesticity of his children and his wife, who reappear as a visual reminder of his mental state throughout the movie. But when we get to see his memories played out, as Ariadne joins him in his dream, what shows up doesn’t exactly resemble Cobb’s idyllic home. The elevator that travels through his subconscious has bars for doors—which don’t show up in the elevator in his literal dream home in the semi-purgatorial state of Limbo—even though he created the material substance of the dream. That enables a shot, as Ariadne and Cobb retreat into the elevator, of Mal on the ground, behind bars. Male nostalgia for a domestic past as a prison for women; the camera asks for a recognition of what nostalgic gender politics look like to those who don’t resemble Leonardo DiCaprio.

Prison of male nostalgia

Right after that shot comes the scene where the camera accepts Ariadne’s visual perspective but not Cobb’s. Rather than let the camera return to male perspective, the movie rejects it. That conversation prompts Ariadne’s inclusion in the dream layers for the Inception mission, and she ultimately guides Cobb to a reunion with his children. The solution to crises the movie has revealed as masculine in nature is not Deakin’s “fictional means” or “un-truths” but a practical path: let the one real woman in the story have a role in the decision-making. Allow people to play with gender perceptions. Realize the danger of the femme fatale is a creature of the masculine subconscious. The movie supposedly challenges us to “dream a little bigger, darling”, but it’s only dreaming if the idea of fluid gender roles and substantive feminine representation get read as impossible fantasies, and not a better future.

[1] Helpfully named Mal, her name points to her (potentially) harmful nature from the start of the film.

[2] To clarify, this is a scene chronologically located towards the end of the movie used at the beginning with a recurring shot from throughout added in. Nolan can’t resist rejecting other movies’ Simple Order of chronological shots.

[3] Representation here meaning not the presence of women, which Hollywood already has, but the on-screen portrayal of femininity as something other than the object of male desire or subject of the male gaze.

[4] That is not to say that Mulvey and her advocates’ argument is simple, as much as to say that the actual shots of the film complicate the outlined narrative.

[5] The “boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider” school of thought. Not just a playground taunt, but also a common perception of gender as two strictly defined, strictly separated, definitely-not-overlapping categories.

This essay was written in the style of David Foster Wallace.

Leah Rosenfeld provided feedback.



Works Cited

Deakin, Peter. “Men in Crisis: Christopher Nolan, Un-Truths and Fictionalising Masculinity.” The Cinema of Christopher Nolan: Imagining the Impossible, Edited by Jacqueline Furby and Stuart Joy, Columbia University Press, 2015, pp. 85–98,

Indick, William. Psychology for Screenwriters: Building Conflict in Your Script. Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 2004. Print.


Chance the Rebel

chance_3Grammy nominations and winners are widely debated and argued year after year. Someone is always left out and someone undeserving, so some believe, wins. Hundreds of experts review the nominations and a long, careful voting process takes place. The Grammy Award for Rap Album of the Year is presented to “honor artistic achievement, technical proficiency and overall excellence in the recording industry, without regard to album sales or chart position.” Previous winners have included Kendrick Lamar (2016), Drake (2013), Lil Wayne (2009), and many others who may or may not have been deserving. With the Grammy’s only a few months away and so many amazing albums being released this year, debates for which one is the best have already begun. Although the nomination committee claims it doesn’t regard alum sales as criteria, the album must be sold commercially through a record label to be nominated. With this being the case, there is one rapper who will never be nominated.

“I hear you gotta sell it to snatch the Grammy” states Chance the Rapper, the young and upcoming Chicago Southside native. Chance is defying the norm by passing out his music for free. In his new, highly-praised album, Coloring Book, Chance, in his own style, creates a masterpiece that rebels against what it means to be modern day rap. His wide use of gospel music throughout the album and joyful tone of voice do not sound anything like that of other rappers of this day (who just try to sound tough and “manly”). Having been downloaded by millions of people, it’s safe to say that his album was very successful. To understand why consumers fell in love with this new album by the Chicago rebel, we must look at three key elements: its rebellious nature, who he represents, and his musical style.


“I used to pass out music, I still pass out music”, he says in his last song of the album, “Blessings”. While most rappers must start off by giving out their music for free until they gain a following and get signed by a record label after proving themselves, Chance does not follow this pattern. He refuses to sign with a label. He passes out his music for free and won’t let people pay for it. Coloring Book was only available through the free streaming app “Apple Music” (free unless you want to upgrade to the premium version of course).

He rebels against the idea that the only way to make it in the music industry now-a-days is to sign with a record label. He successfully relies on word of mouth and social media to distribute his music. Even though multiple record labels have gone to him with offers he continues to deny them. He refuses to be controlled by someone other than himself. He does what no other rapper of this day does; he will not accept the help of a record label. Chance doesn’t believe you need a record label to be successful and he is proving it every day with his growing popularity.

Also, take notice at all three of his album covers. Starting with his first album/mixtape, 10 Day, he is looking up into the clouds, as if he was looking up into the music industry. Then fast forward to his second album, Acid Rap, and he is looking right at us; as if he was now in the industry and a part of it. Now finally look at the cover of Coloring Book. He is in the clouds, looking down. He is saying he is above everyone else in the industry, he is better, he is leading them.chicago_from_north_avenue_beach_june_2015_panorama_2


Let’s listen to his first verse in his intro “All We Got”. He states “this is for the kids of the king of all kings/this is the holiest thing”. He is writing for our generation, the young kids. (Who, in the eyes of God, views everyone as his child). Although you don’t have to be religious he is simply stating he is writing for our generation (it probably does have more significance if you are though). Chance is only 23 but he is undoubtedly the most talented rapper of our generation. Being the most talented, he has become the leader of our generation in the genre of rap and hip-hop.

Let’s move forward to the 8th song in the album, “Angels”. In his first two lines, he sings, “I got my city doing front flips/ When every father, mayor, rapper jump ship”. Chance not only represents our generation as a total but he focuses in on the youth of Chicago, specifically the South Side. He has become a very involved advocate in helping to “clean up the streets, so my daughter can have somewhere to play” (He even won Chicago’s Outstanding Youth of the Year Award). His representation of the Chicago youth has gained him much respect from the community. Chance shows that there is hope; he is giving them a voice when everyone else “jump[ed] ship”. By being proud of his city and referring to the people as “Angles” he is showing the side of Chicago that we don’t normally see. His pride for the city makes him feel like their leader, “City so damn great, I feel like Alexand’”. He steps up to be a leader of people who are struggling when everyone else left them. If he can make it, so can they. He is encouraging them to not accept the conditions they are in but to fight back and improve their lives, to rebel, because “You don’t want no problem with me”. The people of Chicago are his “Angels”, surrounding him always.

Musical Style

His masterpiece, the single work of art that brings everything together: Coloring Book (so named because of the countless biblical references and gospel style). When thinking of rap or hip hop music, people tend to think of gang members rapping about drugs, drinking, and women (in the not so respectful way). The album not only rebels against these typical styles but goes one step further and introduces gospel music. This isn’t the first time someone has tried to do this. Kanye West started off inserting gospel in his earliest raps but as he progressed as a rapper he has skewed very far from his roots (you can hear it in The Life of Pablo). Chance, on the other hand, stays true to this spiritual and heavenly music from his earliest works, to his work on Surf, and now in Coloring Book.

First off, his voice and style of rap are very different from regular artists. While most rappers are aggressive (almost sounding angry), or mumble so much they are impossible to understand, Chance has a very joyful and light-hearted tone. He is, for the most part, happy and praising someone or something. While most rappers just care about beats and rap bad lines on top of them, Chance is very focused on his lyrics. He has a uniqueness of using many adlibs, including his signature “na na na” to start of many of his songs and verses. He preaches God, his family, and his community like no other rapper of this day does (having one song dedicated just to God, “How Great”). Just like chance sings, “we don’t do the same drugs no more” in “Same Drugs” (which is actually about growing up and no longer sharing the same interests as other special people in his life, not drugs), rap isn’t the same rap it used to be. His stylistic flow is much different than any other rapper. He is able to have fun and is able to fuse together a melodic flow with his regular rap flow that is pure genius and is something no one else can really do with such smoothness.

ThImage result for chance the rappere brilliance of Chance the Rapper is the actual music. Gospel rap? Yes, that is what Chance does. He uses gospel. He includes old-school instruments like the saxophone, trumpet, string instruments, and even a choir. His jazzy, gospel hip hop album is something that is very rare in today’s music industry and something that is usually never this successful. He’s able to combine modern music with the past and blend it into something that sounds beautiful. With the release of Coloring Book, Chance has evolved rap and hip hop into something it has never been before.

So, one might ask how Chance the Rapper has gained such a big following. It is because people love change and deviating from the norm. They like to rebel against the norms that are put in place by the culture industry; it has become very appealing to them. According to the article Dark Age: Why Johnny Can’t Dissent by Thomas Frank, our society today has turned from “the clunking tailfin-and-ranch-house economy of the 1950s into a golden new hyper-consumerism”. Citizens are now considered consumers and buying/consuming objects releases some sort of existential feeling inside them. It is because of this that we can no longer refer to movies, TV shows, music etc. as “simple entertainment” but more like “economically crucial tools”, says Frank. We can no longer think of Coloring Book as just a mere album but something much more; it is a movement to deviate from what rap has become and rebel the standards that have been put in place by other rappers. It is because of this, that rebellion has become the official aesthetic of consumer society. Chance’s new album Coloring Book proves this is true by the widespread fame he has acquired from it.

In the book Contemporary Issues in Marketing and Consumer Behavior, author Elizabeth Parson poses the question “what if countercultural rebellion, rather than being a consequence of intensified consumption, were actually a contributing factor?” She goes on to state that “rebellion drives the consumer society”. This happens because people feel the need to compete with one another. They need to stand out from the sameness in society and rebel against conformity. While some rappers are all making the same garbage and mumbling their voices over some good beats (or bad ones), ChanceImage result for chance the rapper is rebelling against them and makes himself distinct in everything he does.

Chance is not inciting rebellion. He is the rebellion. Everything he does is against the mainstream norms of what it means to be a rapper in this day and age. He warns us too, if someone is going to try to stop him, “Its gon’ be some dread head n****s in the lobby”. Consumers are filled with “sameness” in their everyday lives. When something comes that rebels against the culture industry and mass art, people flock to it and consume it because consumerism is “no longer about ‘conformity’ but about ‘difference’” (Frank). By the way he raps, his style of music, how he represents the people as being a part of them, Chance is the difference people want to consume. His rebellious nature has become the new aesthetic of what people want to consume in a society filled with sameness.

Little Charlie Bucket, Our Savior

If we look beyond the colorful fields of edible grass and chocolate rivers in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, we might find a something a bit less sweet to the taste. In the well-known version of the story, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Charlie Bucket, an impoverished, yet kind-hearted English boy, finds the final golden ticket for a competition to win an unknown prize from Willy Wonka himself. Freddie Highmore, who plays Charlie, does a terrific job collecting a fan club for Charlie, the underdog, as he gets closer and closer to winning. But in Tim Burton’s rendition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie represents much more than a lucky little English boy. In fact, the plotline that we all know has a racial script that the movie simultaneously follows that establishes a racial hierarchy.



From left to right: Augustus, Charlie, Violet, Mike, Veruca


The racial script begins most obviously with the abundance of white actors in the movie. Upon Willy Wonka’s announcement of the five hidden golden tickets, the movie cuts to a clip of Japanese children scrambling to buy as many bars as possible in a store in Tokyo, and then to a clip of Moroccans bartering for Willa Wonka bars in a marketplace. But despite the appearance of a worldwide sale of chocolate bars, the winners of the golden tickets include two British children, Charlie Bucket and Veruca Salt, two American children, Violet Beauregarde and Mike Teavee, and one German child, Augustus Gloop, all white. So, here we have a white world-renowned factory owner, with five white kids and their white parents (or grandparents) as the main cast in the movie. By choosing children from Western Europe and America, and omitting minority groups, the movie seems to want us to associate whiteness with success and dominant mainstream society. This serves to make anyone outside this category become estranged to the audience, as we will see with the Oompa Loompas.



With the exception of a few very brief on-screen appearances, the movie’s most prevalent non-white characters are the Oompa Loompas, Willy Wonka’s little factory workers. Fifteen years prior to the movie’s present day, Willy Wonka fired all of his workers, Charlie’s Grandpa Joe explains, and shut his factory off from the world. In his seclusion, Willy Wonka explored the world looking for “exotic new flavors for candy” and came across Loompaland, where he found a population of small, hard-working, dark-skinned, Loompaland natives who would become his new factory workers. Willy Wonka extends an offer to the Chief Oompa Loompa: their labor in return for cocoa beans, the Oompa Loompa’s most prized possession. After exchanging a few hand signs and grunts, the Chief agrees to bring his people to work for Willy Wonka in his factory. I refer to Oompa Loompas collectively as an entire population, but perhaps the most interesting part of this population is that they are all played by the same actor, Deep Roy, who was born in Kenya to Indian parents, and whose height of 4’4” reflects the miniature physique of the Oompa Loompas in the movie. So let’s get this straight; the Oompa Loompas are identical, tiny, dark-skinned, foreign, large in numbers, receive no monetary pay, and work for a white guy. Does the movie mean for us to align the “race” of Oompa Loompas with Latinos?  In the historical context of the original book, the immigration of Latino immigrants, especially in England, certainly is not relevant, but I point out the similarities in the context of present-day associations, keeping in mind the movie was made in 2005. They share characteristics with the unfortunate present-day stereotype of Latino immigrants: petite, tan, hard-working, and replacing white workers for lower pay. The Oompa Loompas wear identical shiny, metallic suits with antenna-like hairstyles, a costume that strongly resembles that of aliens, or should I say immigrants?


Oompa Loompa’s dancing in a ceremonial gathering. The dancing Oompa Loompa wears a cocoa bean on his head.


Willy Wonka exploring Loompaland.

Alternatively, the movies intends for us to align Oompa Loompas with Central African tribal culture in the Congo Rainforest. In one clip the Oompa Loompas dance in grass skirts and other ceremonial adornment. Uncoincidentally, Roald Dahl’s original version of the book (1964) describes Willy Wonka’s factory workers as “3,000 amiable black pygmies… imported by Mr. Willy Wonka from ‘the very deepest and darkest part of the African jungle’”(Treglown). Associations with the Pygmy People of Central Africa are uncanny; they are little people, as are the Oompa Loompas in the movie, as is Roy Deep in real life. This also brings to mind the history of European colonization of Africa. The movie connects the Oompa Loompas, whose land was exploited by a white explorer (Willy Wonka), and whose labor is now vital to the production of the factory’s goods, to the history of the exploitation of African land and slaves. Despite the grim connections, it actually turns out that it does not matter whether the movie aligns the Oompa Loompas with Latinos, African people, or another non-white group, because the simple fact that they are not white is good enough. According to the movie, the anything-but-white race sits lower on the racial hierarchy. They work for the the white businessman, the white golden ticket holders.

But then the racial script gets even more complicated when sub-hierarchies of race emerge. In order to see this, I must introduce Richard Dyer’s The Matter of Whiteness. Whiteness, he says, is defined by the ability “to transcend” (Dyer 17) the physical body. It is embodied by “its energy, enterprise, discipline and spiritual elevation” (Dyer 21). He even compares whiteness to Christian culture by way of the “link between the body and spirit” (Dyer 18). Contrastingly, blackness confines people to their physical bodies, and we see this in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory most conspicuously in the Oompa Loompa’s musical performances, which makes up the bulk of their screen time. We must look closely, however, to notice a sub-hierarchy within the cast of white characters. As Willy Wonka gives a tour of his chocolate factory, each child faces an obstacle that ultimately requires physical repair. For example, the demise of Augustus Gloop, the fat, candy-loving German boy, occurs when he falls into the river of chocolate and gets sucked up by a pipe. He exits the factory with his body covered head to toe in brown chocolate. Violet Beauregarde, who takes immense pride in her accomplishments, specifically her gum-chewing championship, faces her downfall when she chews gum that Willy Wonka has not yet perfected; she turns violet-colored and blows up into a huge blueberry, and is then brought to the juicer. As she exits the factory, we see her new violet, ultra-flexible body twisting in unnatural ways. Spoiled Veruca Salt decides she wants a squirrel from the factory (Willy Wonka employs squirrels to crack open nuts). But when the unhappy squirrels deem her a “bad nut”, they throw her down the garbage chute to the incinerator. She leaves the factory covered in garbage. Finally, Mike Teavee shrinks to the size of a human hand when he misuses one of Willy Wonka’s new inventions, a chocolate bar teleporter. He is then taken to the taffy stretcher to be elongated. So there you have it, a picture of white people, transforming into discolored, deformed beings and in the process, losing their whiteness. Not only have Violet and Augustus literally changed skin color, all of them become confined to their bodies in some very conspicuous way, which implies blackness. Willy Wonka, simply by leading a tour of his factory, has rooted out the “bad nuts”, the children who, despite their whiteness, are deemed unworthy of victory. That leaves us with Charlie, the sweet, harmless, British boy who, by virtue of everyone else’s forfeits, has won the grand prize: heirdom to the factory. By emphasizing the children’s physical discolorations and deformities, the movie confines them to their bodies and essentially de-whitifies them, placing them lower down on the movie’s racial hierarchy.


Augustus and his mother, leaving the factory.

Violet and her new body.

Violet and her discolored body.

So the children lose their status as white people. But what makes Charlie superior and, therefore, deserving of the grand prize? The movie’s central plot calls for an heir to run the chocolate factory, and it cuts out the entire population of the world except for Americans, Germans and the English. Even then, the story sends an underlying message to keep the power within British people. The British boy is next in line to power (note that the snobby British girl loses out, which is the movie’s way of placing a greater value on male, working class Brits). That Charlie is British and of the working class cannot be reason enough to declare his superiority though, so what else does the movie offer as key components to the ideal victor?

Charlie Bucket.

Charlie Bucket.

Charlie’s virtuous ways align him with Christian morals. He possesses generosity, as seen when he shares his singular birthday chocolate bar with all six family members. When Charlie asks Violet why not start a new piece of gum, she responds “because then I wouldn’t be a champion, I’d be a loser like you” to which Charlie barely reacts, showing his composure and forgiveness. Contrastingly, each of the four real losers exhibits one of the seven deadly sins: gluttonous Augustus, prideful Violet, greedy Veruca, and raging Mike, who seems to always be mad. Kara Keeling and Scott Pollard write that not just the four children, but everyone in the world except for the Buckets have a strange obsession and desire for food, which accurately speaks to the sinfulness and gluttony of the world (Critical Approaches to Food in Children’s Literature). Charlie’s Christian whiteness surpasses not only that of the immoral children, but that of the gluttonous, lustful world around him.


Willy Wonka.

Willy Wonka at the Bucket Family dinner.

Willy Wonka at the Bucket Family dinner.

It turns out that the movie’s take on whiteness goes even beyond Christian morals. In fact, the movie seems to want us to associate ideal whiteness with heterosexuality and the traditional family unit (father, mother, and child). Willy Wonka’s unusual appearance, made up of a top hat, velvet coat, bug-eye goggles, and an effeminate hair style, combined with his lack of family, and questionable sexuality sets him apart from mainstream society. When Violet’s tall, thin, blond mother conspicuously flirts with Willy Wonka, he stares at her blankly, clearly either not interested or not able to pick up on the social queue. Something about him feels  uncomfortable; maybe it is his eccentric dress, his social awkwardness, or his queerness. Stuart Aitken writes in Composing identities: Films, families and racism about Heidi Nast’s argument “that “race” is inherent in modern conceptions of heterosexuality that constructs a normative family quadrad comprising Mother, Father, Son, and the Repressed (the Wild or Bestial). The Mother-Father-Son triad is encoded as white while the repressed Bestial is colored”. This applies to the Buckets, a family whose lack of financial stability is made up for in love, support, and an overall attractiveness as a family unit. Though he is not “colored”, Willy Wonka fills the role of the “bestial”. He lacks social skills, heterosexuality, and a family. But when Charlie, the superior white character wins the contest, he adopts Willy Wonka into his stable family and begins a process of “fixing” Willy Wonka’s queerness. The movie, then, tells us that even though Willy Wonka is white, he is not ideally white and so he must strive to be more like Charlie and his family, which he ultimately does in the final family dinner scene. We end with a movie that defines a racial hierarchy that, as it turns out, does not depend purely on appearance. Rather, Rather, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory establishes a vision of ideal whiteness embodied by Charlie Bucket, our little Christian white savior.

Harry Potter: More About Race Than You Thought

Here is what I thought I knew about Harry Potter: everything.

I have read every book and can quote every movie. I can name the actors who play the major characters, and how they were casted. I can name all the minor characters and describe every detail of the plot. I can list facts about the characters that only a small portion of Harry Potter fans would understand. I can talk about why this series is so amazing and why it has had such a profound impact on who I am. I can rant about how my childhood wouldn’t have been the same without this series. But honestly, none of this matters.

Now, do not take this to mean that I was obsessed with these books. I was unreasonably obsessed. Instead of doing homework or having fun, I would read. I would buy the next book in the series before I was even half way through the one before. I read each one so fast that wanted to make sure I could get my hands on the next book as soon as possible. A second could not be spared. My life seemed to revolve around the stories that J.K. Rowling told. I was so drawn to this imaginary world that I removed myself from reality.

As young as I was when I read the series, I only could digest the information that was in pain sight. All the clear-cut elements of the story were easily accessible to my young mind, and I was taking everything in. I wanted to know all that could be known about this new world, and I thought I did.

According to Chuck Klosterman, there are three kind of information:

  1. “Information that you know you know.
  2. Information that you know you don’t
  3. Information that you don’t know you don’t know” (Klosterman 2007).

Looking back now on my knowledge of Harry Potter, I would say that I fall into the third category. I thought I knew everything, but there was so much I wasn’t aware of. I feel that young viewers are so blinded to the real but hidden messages in the series. I was blinded because of my age and my love for the series. Despite the constant war between good and evil present in the movies, we all wish we could be a part of this fantasy. Readers become obsessed with the fake reality and desire to be a part of the wizarding world. We even created one in Orlando, Florida! However, there is something that we haven’t noticed in Harry Potter: racial notions. The movies seemingly eliminate race by creating an almost entirely white wizarding world, but it creates a new racial hierarchy among magical and non-magical people. The battle between good and evil is a racial war. Viewers are unaware of this racial tension because it has been manifested in a different way. The racial war takes place in a seemingly non-racial way.

J.K. Rowling has created a world that seemingly transcends the social construct of race by creating a new, almost entirely white, world. At first glance, Harry Potter seems to have no racial storyline. White people control both sides of the war. The fate of the wizarding world is left in their hands. The non-white minorities are essentially left to watch as the future of their world is fought over. I realize that by showing how white people control both sides of the war, I am not explaining the racial tension. Lord Voldemort (the Dark Lord) is the leader of the evil forces. The Dark Lord is summoned by the Dark Mark, which is a figure sent into the air.


The Dark Mark’s purpose is not only to summon the Dark Lord. It is also used as a threat, creating tremendous fear. The Dark Mark can only be produced by a loyal member of Voldemort’s forces.


These members have a physical mark of darkness on their arm to show their loyalty to evil. Instead of using traditional racial stereotypes to signify evil, J.K. Rowling uses white men with dark marks as evil figures. In this white wizarding world, the evil ones are just a little darker than the rest.


The notion that darkness in the mist of whiteness represents evil as a clearly racist notion. Being darker or having dark marks on your skin represents evil according to the Harry Potter series. This dark mark is easily covered up by these characters. Therefore, the darkness isn’t something that we can see in plain sight just by looking at a character. Thus, race can be hidden within characters, hidden from viewers.

The evil white characters show a slight darkness inside of them, but where do the actual non-white characters come into play? In an almost entirely white series of movies, minorities have a total of six minutes of dialogue. Eight movies and only six minutes of dialogue. These characters barely seem to exist.


Picture of Hogwats students where almost everyone appears to be white

Non-white characters:

These characters additionally have seemingly easily replaceable, inconsequential roles. The uniqueness of their identities is cast out the window, which further marginalizes the minorities. The presence of these characters doesn’t distract from the fact that the wizard world is entirely white, so why did J.K. Rowling bother to include them? The casting a few non-white minor characters helps to create the white world because these characters seem out of place. The inclusion highlights the exclusion and aids in creating a world dominated by whiteness.

Within the wizarding and non-wizarding worlds, another separation is created. All magical beings are placed above humans. Wizards refer to humans as “muggles,” which can be translated to mean a person with no skill or ability. Muggles are seen as weak and inferior to wizards because of their lack of power. However, there are muggle parents who give birth to wizards. Hermione, as an example, is referred to as a mudblood by evil characters. The word Mudblood literally translates to dirty blood. Voldemort and his followers take wizard superiority to a new level. He believes that wizardry should be kept within all magical families (pure bloods), and people like Hermione should be killed. Harry Potter and his supporters separate from Voldemort on this very point. They believe that all are equal. No wizard is greater than any other. Voldemort’s blood purification is comparable to the Hitler’s Nazi regime in Germany in the 20th century. Hitler believed in the extermination of Jews, and Voldemort believes in wiping out impure wizards. J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world has created a hierarchy that on the surface doesn’t appear to be about race but in reality, is solely about it. Viewers, especially young people, watch the series and immediately call Voldemort a murderer and claim that is what separates the good and the evil. However, we miss over the fundamental fact that he is killing to gain power and purify the wizarding race. There are two main characters who will help clarify Voldemort’s beliefs. First, Rubeus Hagrid is half wizard and half giant.


He has all of the magical capabilities that any other wizard has, yet he is treated by the Malfoys and other supporters of Voldemort as nothing but a dumb giant. These evil characters treat him as inferior simply because of who he is. Though not apparently about race, Hagrid’s treatment by the evil wizards is clearly about wizard race. Second, Hermione Grander has two human parents. However, she somehow became a wizard. She also is treated terribly by the evil characters, especially Draco Malfoy. Because her bloodline is “impure” she is viewed as weak and lower in status. Despite her non-magical blood line, Hermione is the brightest student in her class.

She demonstrates above average knowledge and ability, despite her magical race. Overall, having an entirely white world seems to eliminate racial tensions. However, the new racial hierarchy created between people of different magical biology exemplifies the manifestation of a different racial battle in Harry Potter. Also, it is plausible that the impure white characters in a way represent nonwhite people (despite their white skin color) because of how they are viewed and treated by the pure wizards. The wizarding world therefore represents a racial battle, which further illuminated J.K. Rowling’s shift in racial relations from actual races to wizarding races.

The superiority of pureblood wizards can be equated to white dominance. Voldemort strongly stands by the idea that his race of wizards is better than all others and is the only group fit to control the wizarding world. There is no other family who agrees with him more than the Malfoy’s. Lucius and Draco Malfoy are the epitome of white privilege and narcissism. Their appearance and attitude attempt to emanate superiority. Both of them have bleach, blonde hair. Their hair is as close to white as hair can get.


They are one hundred percent pure blood wizards with opulent wealth and flaunt it whenever possible.

The Malfoys are as white as white can get, and they use their status to their advantage. Ironically, the epitome of whiteness is one of the main representations of darkness. Additionally, The Malfoys belittle everyone who threatens them. However, they are the weak ones. In every battle, they either lose or run away. (at the end)

Additionally, Voldemort ultimately loses to Harry Potter. The good, impure forces defeat the evil, pure forces.


The evil characters view the impure as genetic mistakes. However, these biological differences are what makes the good characters more human and better than the pure wizards. J.K. Rowling has changed the racial stereotypes. The impure wizards are the brightest, and the pure, extremely white wizards are weak. Viewers are blind to this change in racial stereotypes because it is hidden underneath wizard races.

Now, I realize that I need to discuss two main characters who also help explain J.K. Rowling’s racial reversal. Ron Weasley and Harry Potter. Ron is a pure blood wizard.


However, his family doesn’t have a lot of wealth. Additionally, Ron’s father is fascinated with muggles. The Weasley family despite their pure blood status, isn’t treated nicely by the Malfoys and other supporters of Voldemort because of their lack of wealth and association with muggles. Ron shows tremendous bravery and sacrifice, human traits that evil wizards lack. Now, the main character, Harry Potter, is a half-blood wizard.


His father was a pure blood wizard and his mother had two muggles parents. Therefore, he lacks complete purity. However, he becomes the most powerful wizard in history. His mother sacrificed herself to protect him, which gave him more power than any evil force. The human love inside of him is what allows him to defeat evil, not biological wizarding power. Overall, complete whiteness, purity, and wealth are associated with inhumane evil. Ron and Harry, both “impure” wizards, successful defeat evil. This is another example of J.K. Rowling’s reversing of racial associations. The purest form of wizardry isn’t the most powerful.

Not only is there a difference between pure and impure wizards, there is a magical hierarchy within the creatures of the wizard world. I am going to discuss two creatures who have racial and stereotypic connections to the human world. The Goblins in Harry Potter control Gringotts, the wizarding bank. These big nosed creatures are regarded as mistrustful and greedy. (Griphook leaves Harry, Ron, and Hermione because he got the sword).


(Griphook: main goblin)

These goblins embody the stereotypes associated with Jews. Jewish moneylenders have been stereotyped as extremely wealthy, deceitful, and having big noses. All of these features are present in goblins. Second, the house elves are represented as the lowest level of society. They are essentially enslaved by their masters and can only be freed when presented with clothes. These creatures depend on their masters to survive and live in fear of punishment. Dobby, a house-elf of the Malfoy family, is a perfect example. He wears a dirty pillowcase, is beaten by his master, and even punishes himself when he disobeys.


Dobby worked for the Malfoys, who are the epitome of whiteness in the Harry Potter series. House-elves clearly provide a direct comparison to enslaved African Americans in 17th to 19th century America. Slaves are completely submissive to their masters will and live in fear. House-elves and slaves were both treated as nothing. African Americans didn’t even count as people, and house-elves are regarded as worthless. Both goblins and house-elves provide connections to human stereotypes and racial prejudices that upon watching Harry Potter for the sole enjoyment of the series, we are blind to. We are not aware of these connections because these characters seem virtually trivial to the plot and aren’t present in the battle between good and evil. J.K. Rowling has hidden these racial messages in places where viewers won’t notice them.

Carin Möller, a Lund University graduate, wrote her Bachelor’s thesis on Harry Potter, in which she states, “Indeed, the racial identifiers seem to exist only as a vehicle for Rowling to show how race has no real meaning in her magical universe” (Möller 2014 page 3/234). I agree that the white world she created essentially signifies that the race of her characters is inconsequential. However, having replaceable minority characters excludes them because their fate is determined by white people. She may as well have never included them. Harry Potter proves that race in general does have meaning. Carin is just like every other viewer. She overlooks the underlying messages about race by claiming race has no meaning in J.K. Rowling’s magical universe. Race has meaning; however, it is hidden in seemingly non-racial relations. Racial meaning is present in pure versus impure wizardry, in the inferiority of magical creatures, and in the darkness hidden within the white characters.

Mikhail Lyubansky of the University of Illinois claims, “the racial issues of Rowling’s story about young wizard Harry Potter can be found in every corner.” (Lyubansky page 19/17). The presence of racism is not as easily accessible to the target viewers of Harry Potter, young kids, as this author makes it seem. They are also not found in every corner. They are hidden in the magical and non-magical tension. The simple creation of a mainly white world doesn’t provide racial tension. Readers of Harry Potter see a false form of racial tension in this world because we aren’t aware of the deeper meanings behind the relationships between characters. When we see the evil characters get defeated, we don’t immediately connect their defeat to their poor treatment of house elves and impure wizards. Over time we may become more aware of the causes of their defeat. However, young viewers and first time watchers cannot see the causes of downfall of Voldemort and his forces. We notice Voldemort’s attempt to purify the wizarding race, but it is almost impossible to notice the underlying messages about white superiority, non-white exclusion, and racial reversals. Even many adults still haven’t noticed the presence and significance of race in these films. It is difficult to uncover and must be searched for in unexpected places.

Overall, one might argue that because Harry Potter defeats Voldemort we are suddenly aware that Voldemort was wrong in trying to purify the wizard race and all magical race is now obvious to viewers. I disagree with this argument. There are certain aspects of race that we are aware of. We immediately notice skin color. J.K. Rowling has created an almost entirely white world, in which the fate of the minority depends on the white characters. There is a battle between which whiteness is better. The pure blood evil characters, who have slight darkness in the midst of the complete whiteness, or the impure good characters, who have more lightness and purity that the pure blood characters. Upon watching Harry Potter, we simply see good and evil. We see light and dark; pure and impure. However, we can’t see how J.K. Rowling has ironically flipped the racial connotations. The epitome of whiteness and purity carries the dark mark. They are weaker than they perceive themselves to be because of their irrational desire for a wizarding world of complete purity. They lack human traits of love, friendship, and sacrifice, and the biologically flawed characters rise up to defeat the evil ones. They have strength, intelligence, and bravery-traits that are usually associated with the purity and wealth of complete human whiteness. These characteristics in the real world aren’t stereotypically associated with the poor, dirty blood, and low life people (wizards). J.K. Rowling has created a more positive outlook on race. Anyone can have any trait. Even the whitest wizards can be the evilest, and even the most impure wizards can courageously save their race from extinction. The ideology is that pure white domination is wrong and impure whites can be smarter and stronger. Therefore, Harry Potter is a call for equality, overturning the status quo of white domination. This view of the race present in Harry Potter isn’t obvious. It is hidden in the backgrounds of the characters. This type of race isn’t always seen when you see the characters in the movie. We can’t see who is pure and who is impure just by looking at them. Race in Harry Potter isn’t always turned on and is therefore difficult to uncover and analyze. J.K. Rowling created a white world so that she can develop race relations between the magical characters and almost completely hide them from viewers.



Written in the style of Chuck Klosterman

Edited by Ashley Zhou



Klosterman, Chuck. “Death by Harry Potter.” Esquire 2007.


Lyubansky, Mikhail “The Psychology of Harry Potter.” Benbella Books Inc.


Möller, Carin “Mudbloods, Half-bloods and Pure-bloods.”  2014.


Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1997. Print

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1998. Print

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1999. Print

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2000. Print

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2003. Print

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2005. Print

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2007. Print

Images from Google and Video clips from Youtube

All Eyes on X-(wo)men

Superman, Batman, Captain America, Spider-man, Iron Man…The superhero franchise has long been dominated by male heroes who fight against male villains. Superhero films featuring female heroes as the main focus, such as Supergirl (1984), Catwoman (2004), Elektra (2005), and Wonder Woman (2009), are relatively unheard of and do not even garnish a fraction of the attention androcentric superhero films do. Nevertheless, people believe that the role of women have greatly evolved since the inception of the superhero franchise. Over the years, as more and more people care about gender equality and entertainment tries to appeal to both men and women, it should come to no surprise that movies with male leads like the X-men series have included women as fighters in the spotlight, not just useless assistants. In order to determine just how progressive superhero films have become in regards to their inclusion and portrayal of women, let’s focus on two important female characters from X-men 3: Jean Grey and Mystique.

Jean Grey

In X-men 3, we realize that Jean Grey, first introduced to us as an ordinary student of Charles Xavier with the limited power to move small objects, is actually the most powerful mutant in the films. After she sacrificed herself in X-men 2 (2003), her rebirth as “the Phoenix” in X-men 3 gives her strength and power unfathomable to those around her. Armed with telepathy, telekinesis, and immense cosmic forces, she does what she wants whenever she wants and brings down destruction and havoc whenever someone attempts to control her. If the movie had stopped with this description of her, many would have been pleased by how it gave so much independence, free will, and power to a woman. Unfortunately, the Phoenix side of her is unable to control itself and she begins to kill people on the good side.

Despite her power, in her most vulnerable state, Jean is still subject to the male gaze, a term coined by feminist film critic Laura Mulvey, which relegates women to objects created to satisfy male fantasies. As Logan watches Jean lying on the recovery table after her resurrection, the camera adopts a male perspective as it lingers on her breasts. Even though she emerged from the waters fully and modestly clothed, somehow, while she was unconscious after her tumultuous resurrection, she was stripped down into wearing nothing but a skin-tight tank top—the movie didn’t even give her the decency of pants. The viewer, through the eyes of Logan, assumes the role of a voyeur, peeking in on a sleeping, half-naked woman. Even when it is illogical, the movie prepares the woman to be viewed as pleasing from a heterosexual male view, and we as viewers unconsciously take on this perspective simply by watching. We become Peeping Toms as we watch Logan and Jean kiss passionately. Mulvey describes this relationship as “sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly” (397). Logan’s attraction to Jean is shown by the camera’s focus on Jean’s breasts and bare legs, and we the viewers subconsciously absorb this male fantasy of Jean’s sexuality.


Logan watching an unconscious Jean

While Mulvey correctly identifies the passivity of the female as male pleasure, the film shifts away from this relationship when the female gains so much power that she subverts the male gaze. The male gaze is intact when Logan is finally able to act on his sexual desires, but we quickly realize something is very wrong once Jean/Phoenix begins to literally suck the life out of Logan. Cultural critic and psychoanalytic philosopher Slavoj Zizek describes this moment in “The Interpassive Subject:” “The object which gives body to the surplus-enjoyment fascinates the subject, it reduces him to a passive gaze impotently gaping at the object; this relationship, of course, is experienced by the subject as something shameful, unworthy.” The gaze of the subject, in other words, the viewer, becomes meaningless once the object of the gaze, Jean, becomes the one acting rather than the one acted upon.  Once she is presented with agency and power in one of her episodes of rage, she cannot be objectified under the male gaze because she is no longer passive and thus cannot be controlled. As Jean unleashes her anguish after realizing she (as the Phoenix) killed her boyfriend earlier when she was resurrected, Logan tells her repeatedly to look at him. The narrative calls the viewer to shift their attention to Logan, and in doing so, we take on Jean’s perspective. At this point, the male gaze is rendered useless, as the object has acquired enough power to refuse objectification.

The film ultimately punishes the woman for her rise to power after leaving a man’s control. Jean joins Magneto, another powerful mutant and leader of the Brotherhood of Mutants who aims to oppose the “cure” that humans have invented to suppress mutant powers. She is led to believe that she is joining on her own terms, egged on by Magneto’s constant reminder that Charles just wanted to contain her powers. However, she is serving as a weapon for Magneto’s use, once again the obedient assistant under the guise of freedom. Jean effortlessly breaks out of Magneto’s control due to her immense powers, but with no one left to control her, she is a menace to all. The film’s solution? Death. While Magneto’s strength and crazy aspirations to kill humans are contained by four needles of the cure to his chest, Jean has to die. When the gender roles reverse and a woman holds and directs the power, she is villainized and killed. She becomes dangerous and is promptly removed from the narrative as soon as she no longer serves the purpose of scopophilia as a passive object. Furthermore, the way she dies is, in itself, peculiar. After a brief lapse back into her normal self, she begs Logan, her on-and-off lover, to “save” her, to which he complies with one thrust of his adamantium claw into her abdomen. Her plea and ecstatic expression after Logan stabs her carry strong sexual undertones (not to mention Logan is half-naked in this scene). When faced with the threat of an uncontrollable woman, the film successfully manipulates us into believing that the male’s sexual conquest of the female is the only way to go.


If Jean Grey represents the over-powerful superhero turned villain, it only makes sense to look at the powerful female villain—Mystique. Villain may be too strong a word because she is not evil per se (in the way that the film makes Jean evil), but she is at least on the side that the film wants us to root against. Mystique is a shapeshifter, and in her natural form, she does not wear clothes. At first glance, it can be argued that she is sexualized merely given that she is naked throughout the films and fights with agility and flexibility which evoke sexual imagery. In “Vivacious Vixens and Scintillating Super Hotties,” Richard Gray writes that superheroines are created to be attractive so that their power does not make the viewer uncomfortable: “When balanced, I would suggest that in the last decade, the superheroine offers men a ‘best of both worlds’ scenario: they possess both the physical ass-kicking strength and strong sex appeal that men need in order to satisfy their ‘scopophilic drive’” (81). While Gray may argue that Mystique’s nude form serves to fulfill sexual desire, he is wrong about Mystique to say that “accentuation of ‘physical’ elements largely involves stylized positioning of the body in order to capture certain voyeuristic ‘shots’ (emphasis of the breasts, for example), in order to depict an idealized female form. This somehow diminishes the super-heroine’s superpower” (83). It is in her natural form, naked and free, when Mystique is at her most powerful. I would even go so far as to argue that by choosing to remain in her bare form, she best resists the male gaze. Although Mystique’s body is thin and toned, fully on display for all to see, notice that she is also blue, scaly, and in some sense of the word, scary to look at. Her reptilian yellow eyes penetrate the viewer (reflecting the viewer’s male gaze back at us) and we cannot help but shudder when she shapeshifts from a normal human back into her natural form. The men in her life try to convince her to assume a normal woman’s appearance, and even give up her mutant power. Defying their desires to change her into something that could be ogled at and objectified, the woman maintains free will and overthrows the viewer’s efforts to manipulate her.

Mystique's natural form

Mystique’s natural form

Mystique’s downfall, then, occurs in order to reestablish the male control of the female body. Mystique sacrifices herself to save Magneto, taking the bullet containing the cure that suppresses mutant powers. As she lies on the ground quivering, her blue skin and scales receding to reveal a beautiful, naked woman with flawless skin, Magneto and the other men stare down at her in shock. No one moves to help her. The stark contrast between the blue-skinned, scaly Mystique and the helpless, truly naked Mystique invites the viewer to sexualize Mystique in a way not possible when she had blue, reptilian skin. Although she is naked in both forms, her blue form enabled her to resist the gaze. By taking her power away, the movie effectively reinstates the male gaze upon Mystique.

Although the film creates and acknowledges the possibility of powerful female characters, it strips away their power as the plot progresses—a sort of testament to what happens when women ask to become more than just the subservient sidekick. On the one hand, we start with sweet, manageable Jean; this side of her is created and maintained by Charles who uses his telepathic powers to suppress the Phoenix side. But once she breaks out of his control as the Phoenix, she is able to defy the male gaze by claiming her individuality. The film did not think this was an acceptable or viable path for women, so in the end, her freedom is taken away and she is punished by death. On the other hand, we have Mystique—capable, independent, and resistant to objectification in her natural blue form. Once again, the movie rebukes the woman for her dismissal of the male gaze, this time by taking away her mutant power. What this boils down to: female superheroes/villains have to be attractive and can sometimes be strong, but once they find a way to oppose the male gaze, their power, or even their entire character, is exterminated. The dominance of the male gaze cannot be questioned, and in watching mainstream movies that enforce this perspective and penalize alternative ones, we continue to live in a world encoded in patriarchal meaning and point of view.



Works Cited

Gray, Richard J. “Vivacious Vixens and Scintillating Super Hotties: Deconstructing the

Superheroine.” Academia. Academia, n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2016.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks, ed. Douglas Kellner and Meenakshi Gigi Durham. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.

Zizek, Slavoj. “The Interpassive Subject.” Lacan. Centre Georges Pompidou, 1998. Web. 14 Dec. 2016.