I wrote a blog on Mexicans as Violent Narcos in Breaking Bad some weeks ago, but felt uneasy about it afterwards. I felt a similar sense of unease about an earlier post about Miss Bala. This was further sparked after listening to some vodcasts by Anita Sarkeesian on Feminist Frequency. Here, I hope to tease out this unease.
I must preface my comments by saying that I am not a Sarkeesian hater, she has been victim of enough vile treatment online, and I have used some of her videos in class, particularly the one on the Bechdel Test and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (which also served as a starting point for an earlier blog), both of which are clear and illuminating. As I listened to/watched two vodcasts on The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, 2012) and True Grit (Ethan and Joel Coen, 2010), I was gnawed by a sense of disquiet. She is, as ever, articulate, makes a clear argument and provides supporting visual evidence, making reference to a wider context of women’s representation in Hollywood. My problem lies in the conclusion that both films are poor representations of women because the women succumb to violence and that they cannot therefore be feminist films if women are violent. In other words, there are right and wrong ways of being a woman.
I don’t wish to suggest that Sarkeesian is unnuanced in her approach (she is not), nor is she rigid in her thinking, but, there is a feeling that these films perforce fail unless the female characters do not espouse a peaceful alternative to violence or demonstrate the real felt consequences it has on them personally. Let’s be clear, Sarkeesian does not just expect this of female characters, for her, men should act this way too. Whilst I agree with her in real life, I largely espouse pacifist politics and see war as a pointless exercise, that is not how I feel about films. I enjoy watching violence. That is, particular types of violence performed on screen. My taste is more towards the war film end of the spectrum (as a glance at this website would attest to) than anything involving vicarious torture thrills. My difficulty is when it is suggested that real life and on screen fiction should cohere, and with the idea that there is a list of how things should be and anything falling short of that is wrong. Again, I don’t want to be unfair to Sarkeesian. She frequently nuances her analysis with exceptions, possible other readings of films, and qualifies her assessments where necessary. My unease with this model is the implication that there is a right and a wrong way of making films when measured according to certain standards, and that my contributions could have given the impression that I believe this to be the case.
In my blog on Miss Bala I know that when you start talking about the representation of women it is an easy trap, and one that I had to carefully negotiate in my first book when looking at how women writers wrote about other women’s experiences in the Mexican Revolution. There is a danger of falling into essentialism (how do women act?/what is the way they should be represented?) based on some reductive biological/social reasoning. Us women are a heterogenous bunch, and being a woman may have particular characteristics dependent on multiple factors too many to exhaustively list, such as, class, racial identity, education, family, citizenship, and so on. It is difficult not to get tied up in knots when trying to articulate the flaws in representation when you see them. I hope it was clear that was where I was coming from in my Miss Bala post. My feminism is not a tickbox exercise, but when I see a pattern of representation being clearly repeated to no positive end, I want to point it out. I want to see films where a woman is not just a thing or a facile trope, as is the case in Miss Bala, but can be a fully-fleshed-out character.
The difficulty in talking about certain figures on screen who have been repeatedly mis-represented, such as women, and, indeed, Mexicans, too much space can be taken up with defending the method and the aim gets lost. I’m sure Sarkeesian faces a similar dilemma, and looking at her outputs as a whole it is possible to discern that she has a keen understanding of the mediascape in which she is articulating her position. So, maybe this can be taken as my position blog that justifies future analyses of weak or poor portrayals of certain groupings.
I have also been reading two books that helped me work through the dilemma of how to write about Mexicans, in particular. It is very tempting to get equally caught up in a debate about what is good and bad representation. Is Speedy Gonzalez bad, because he is an exceptional witty and lively Mexican in a town of lackadaisical, unambitious and sleepy compatriots? But, what of the appropriation of this character by Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, the spokesperson of the Chiapan rebellion. Is the character Gloria (Sofía Vergara, I know she is Colombian) from Modern Family regressive as a Latina bombshell? Or, can she be claimed as a complex nuanced character, as many other similar characters/actors have been by respected theorists such as, Stephanie Dennison, Lisa Shaw, Ann Davies, and others.
The first of these books is Badmen, Bandits, and Folk Heroes: The Ambivalence of Mexican American Identity in Literature and Film by Juan J. Alonzo (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2009). Given the focus of his book, Alonzo evidently addresses the representation of Mexicans in US film and literature. He draws on Homi K. Bhabha’s work on stereotypes and states that,
“rather than seeing images as ‘positive’ or ‘negative’, we should examine instead the ambivalent points of attraction and revulsion within representations of Mexican identity. By emphasizing the ways in which the stereotype’s anxious repetitions reveal the impossibility of a fixed or original identity, we begin to understand that the stereotype is a construct, part of a representational apparatus” (2009, 2).
This teases out the difficulties of engaging with stereotypes or representations of certain figures, and the development of his argument in the introductory chapter is a helpful way into thinking about stereotypes as “an ambivalent and vacillating form of discourse” (6). His idea of vacillation in the stereotype is a useful approach and one which resonates with Nestor García Canclini’s consideration of heterogeneity in the popular in his Hybrid Cultures: Strategies for Entering and Leaving Modernity (Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, 1995).
The second book, Dolores Tierney Emilio Fernández: Pictures in the Margins (Manchester & New York: Manchester University Press, 2012), draws on a wide variety of critics, in particular the work of Canclini, Jesús Martín Barbero and Carlos Monsiváis, to question the usual approach to reading the work of Emilio Fernández’s oeuvre, the director, actor, and model for the Oscar statuette (I kid you not). He has been seen to be the embodiment of Mexican masculinity and an exemplar of mestizo (mixed race) Mexican identity, and, previously, his work (especially that of the 1930s-50s) has been read as exemplary auteurist works. In order to interrogate this, Tierney considers how to reconsider his othering in both his Hollywood and Mexican appearances. As “el indio” [the Indian], his nickname which works as a “peripheralizing strategy” (2012, 60), he is reduced to his ethnicity. Previous readings of his on screen roles serve to essentialise him as either the dangerous Mexican (in Hollywood – think of his performance in The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969)), noble savage (in his roles as an indigenous man in Mexican film), or dangerous other (in both). By breaking with earlier readings of Fernández’s work as director and actor, Tierney’s text is an accomplished example of how to write about the representation of the other.
These texts provide models for exploring the typical, stereotypical, and to negotiate a way through the quagmire of how to talk/write about women and Mexicans in future blogs and long-form writing. It also reminds me of the limitations of blogging. It is short form (although this one is longer than most), and academic writing is largely long-form (usually minimum 5,000 words). Therefore, there is only so much that can be said and qualified, something that we academics know is often necessary. I hope that my readers will understand that I recognise the knottiness of this idea of good/bad representation, and that I will try to nuance my writing accordingly without stretching their patience. This is a blog. My views will seem abrupt and off-the-cuff, and I will express things inelegantly, at times, and reserve the right to revisit and amend where necessary. I am also keen to keep working through how and what I talk about when I write about women and Mexicans.**
*The title is inspired by this article: http://www.film.com/movies/female-directors-ramsay
**I wish to add an addendum to this blog. I am aware that on re-reading my Breaking Bad blog I realised that it was hampered by the unease that I am talking about here, and it became rather baggy and lost direction. I think that it might benefit from some longer reflection in the future, or perhaps, a second go. I have decided to leave it up as is in order to show my process in action, which should impel me to do something, as my academic ego will not be happy with the loose and disordered and will serve to push me to action.