When I was a kid, I used to sometimes stay at my grandma’s house, and she would always stay up until 9 or 10pm (big-kid bedtime) watching Japanese language TV. My grandma was born in the United States to Japanese immigrants, and speaks what she calls “pidgin-Japanese” to our Japan-based relatives, but still enjoys Japanese media, as long as it has subtitles. Sometimes, when I couldn’t sleep, I would watch Japanese TV with her.
Mostly it was soap operas, set in feudal Japan. But we also watched Iron Chef. As I did, later, with my parents. Featuring Iron Chefs Sakai, Morimoto, Chen– and, of course, over-the-top master of ceremonies Chairman Kaga, who would start every episode with a montage of self-satisfied ingredient-sniffing and imperious surveyings of his game show set domain.
Watch this for classic Kaga (plus inexplicable Pirates of the Caribbean music):
Now everyone knows American media really likes to import and translate foreign TV shows and films, and the extent to which the original cultural imprint remains can vary. The Departed gets transplanted from Hong Kong to Boston. The Ring moves to Seattle with a little white girl as evil ghost and blond lady Naomi Watts as terrorized protagonist, while The Grudge stays in Japan with a Japanese woman and little boy as evil ghosts and blond lady Sarah Michelle Gellar as terrorized protagonist. In Europe/Scandinavia, Let the Right One In is redubbed Let Me In and moved to middle America, while The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo keeps the exact same Stockholm setting and story and just switches to English (with some Swedish people having British accents, and some having Swedish accents, both equally inexplicably).
But maybe I can’t compare Iron Chef USA to these transplanted movies. Maybe a better point of comparison is “Wipeout,” which re-creates the zany Japanese game show obstacle course antics of “Takeshi’s Castle.” While the Japanese game show influence is obvious, there are otherwise no representations of Japanese culture in the American show. It’s more of an opportunity for us to see people get hurt by falling off of really ridiculous, brightly-colored things. (A universal pleasure.)
Iron Chef USA, however, has kept the Japanese-ness of its origins alive in two ways. First, by employing Iron Chef Morimoto, one of the original Japanese Iron Chefs. Cool. Fine. Second, by employing Mark Dacascos as the host and “nephew” (because all Asian people are related! Is that it!!) to Chairman Kaga.
Every time I watch Iron Chef USA on Food Network, I cringe at Dacascos’ performance. His studied, self-consciously clipped “Asian” accent. His theatrical overextensions, jumping between a serene arms-at-sides position to the exaggerated arms-sweeping of secret-ingredient-announcing. The little “whoosh” sound effects that accompany the piercing glances he throws at each of the contestants before said arms-sweeping secret-ingredient-announcing.
Before landing his Chairman Kaga Lite gig in 2005, Mark Dacascos made a career as an actor and martial artist. He appeared in Double Dragon alongside Scott Wolf (I know I was like WHOA!) and in a CSI episode as a Buddhist monk named Ananda who is a murder suspect (with that same bewildering “Asian” accent—discussed below). He is originally from Hawaii, according to Wikipedia, born to a Chinese-Filipino-Spanish father and an Irish-Japanese mother. In his own way he is pretty pan-Asian.
But as he stands there on that Iron Chef USA stage, speaking in English, surrounded by mostly white people, enacting that bizarre ritual which kicks off every show which is based on Chairman Kaga’s original routine but here feels unnatural, exploitative, and like an attempt to capture a “mysterious” Eastern vibe using this inscrutable Chairman Kaga’s nephew character, as he shoots kung-fu glances at the contestants and then says in a kung-fu voiceover voice, “Today’s… secret… ingredient… is…” and then fog machines are unleashed and the ingredient is unveiled with Kaga Lite dramatically lifting his arms like a symphony conductor via a magician pretending at the ability to levitate objects, and whatever it is—let’s say it’s oysters—he then, wide-eyed, rolling his head in a kung-fu flourish, announces in the most melodramatic, Asian-y way possible, “Ohh-OYY-sterrs!!!” And the white people stand around and clap at this silly little spectacle. Then he yells in machine-gun Japanese-style French: “ALLEZ CUISINE!” (Something Kaga did too.)
Well. And as he does all this. I cringe.
Here’s a montage of what I can only imagine is every ingredient announcement ever (click here if video doesn’t work):
First off, Mark Dacascos is Asian-American. Yet every episode, he pushes his American subjecthood down under the surface and puts on this weird throwback Oriental act. And maybe because it’s done in such earnest, and maybe additionally because there’s such a disconnect between his Asian caricature and his own, clearly American, mixed features (this shouldn’t make a difference, but just seems to call more attention to it— not to mention the palatability/marketability of a conventionally handsome American Asian with tan skin and large eyes vis-à-vis a more traditionally featured Asian man), and the knowledge that this disconnect might be much less apparent to people who live in parts of the country without any Asians, such that they’ll be like, “Asians! That’s what they’re like!”—that it all feels, you know. Offensive.
Plus, there are hardly any Asians in TV/film, period. And what often happens when they ARE there, is it’s Asian-Americans playing Asian Asians. Like they’re not from here.
People might say that this act is harmless, that it’s just an homage to the over-the-top theatricality of Japanese television, and that might be true. But when analyzing pop culture (no seriously I wish there was a job just called “pop culture analyst” and that someone would hand it to me) I tend to take a multitude of factors into account: intent, performance, reception, broader impact. What you do in your living room when you’re joking around with your friends is going to have a different reception and impact than what Mark Dacascos does on the Food Network. In effect, it is at the very least a reproduction of Orientalist tropes of “the Asian” as mysterious, impersonal, and ultimately foreign.
Note on the “Asian” accent: What I mean by this isn’t your standard Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese et al accent. It’s more like what I referred to as the “kung-fu voiceover”: no traces of mispronounced words, all American-accented, but with a clipped, self-conscious quality that may or may not have originated in the kung fu dubbings of the 1960s and 1970s as an American voice actor’s attempt to sound “Asian” without effecting an actual accent. I have no sources to back this up. This is my impression. “Sau-SAGE!” “Pitz-a-doh!” “TO-MAY-TO!” Suffice it to say, it emphasizes a “foreignness” in the Asian figure that is divorced from any ethnic, cultural, or geographic reality.
Which is just what we need. More “Where are you froms?” More Asians-as-foreigners discourse. More Julie Chen-style desperate playing up of Asian stereotypes to a largely white audience.
For more on the above, listen to Andrew Ti’s very funny podcast from this week, about “Where are you from?” I’m already devising responses in my head to what I anticipate to be an increase in such inquiries when I move inland. (where am I from? California. where are my parents from? England, and Michigan. where are my grandparents from? England, Canada, and California. STRAW MAN MIND BLOWN.)
Travel Writing and the American Gaze: The Best American Travel Writing, edited by Anthony Bourdain and Jason Wilson
(Disclaimer: I feel super obsolete writing a review of a 2008 collection. In fact, I even felt obsolete reading this book in public. The downside of including years in collection titles [as opposed to, I suppose, big Roman numerals, or even Arabic numerals; see the “Now That’s What I Call Music” CD series]. I’ll just pretend that 2008 was a good year for wine and travel essays.)
I would never have read this book, but my mom happened to have it and was no longer interested in reading it. My mom regularly checks out plastic-coated hardcovers from the library that some American woman or British man or vice versa wrote about their lovely summer or decade in Tuscany or the south of France or Venice or where-have-you. She thought this would be in keeping with her reading proclivities, but no— the book is instead filled with reporter-at-large type essay dispatches from Chad, Cambodia, northwest Pakistan, Turkmenistan. Full of danger and discomfort; not stories where you necessarily want to trade places with the protagonist. She blamed series guest editor Anthony Bourdain, whose brand is after all titled “No Reservations.”
She thought it would be my thing though. And I guess it kind of is.
The diversity of the stories and the journalistic clarity of the writing (the most-represented major publications here are The New Yorker and Travel + Leisure, with some Harper’s and Slate thrown in) made for consistently interesting, entertaining reads. I’ve never followed travel writing as a genre, but there’s something to be said for getting the opportunity to be thrown into a far-flung place for 6-12 pages at a time, learning minutiae about a country or city or neighborhood you’d maybe never have thought of otherwise, much less visited.
But I have my complaints. And I don’t know if I should lay these complaints at the feet of individual writers and editors, or upon the shoulders of the genre as a whole.
The first thing that struck me, several stories in, was that most of the writers were men. Four out of the twenty-five essays were written by women. It took about ten essays to get to the first woman-penned story, and, lo and behold, it was a super-short, semi-humorous, quasi-poetic reflection on a bathroom hookup with a hot Israeli in a Brazilian youth hostel (“Mr. Tingler,” by Emily Maloney). Not exactly comparable in gravity to, say, the embedded reporters in African war zones (see: “African Promise,” by J. Malcolm Garcia; “The Border,” by Peter Chilson).
I get that this is largely a question of access. While women can and do travel most of the world, there are places and contexts where they aren’t quite as welcome, and spaces that are not as easy to penetrate and move freely in. (Exceptions, maybe, can be found in Kristin Ohlson’s “Kabul Nights,” in which she visits secret restaurants in the Afghan capital, and Annie Nocenti’s “The Most Expensive Road Trip in the World,” in which she and a female documentarian ride along with Qatari princes and real estate magnates on a falconing trip through some of Pakistan’s least hospitable parts.)
This lack of representation makes sense, but it’s still disappointing. It’s like living in a little world where, superficially, women have every opportunity that men do, but then zooming out and remembering that they don’t, that the outside world is even farther from a liberal paradise than America is.
When I went to Lebanon solo (I swear, I’ll shut up about this some day), I felt extra apprehensive because of my gender. My fears proved mostly unfounded, though I definitely attracted strange looks wandering the streets of Beirut by myself, taking pictures. When I arrived in Paris, before my (male) friend met up with me, I was hassled by two separate panhandlers in front of Sacre-Coeur within two minutes; after he joined me, there was no similar incident for the remainder of the trip. When a female friend told me about her solo travels in Eastern Europe, she recommended attaching oneself to older local women to safeguard against creeps. Shit, even here, when I walk home from BART at night, I have my spidey senses on for the entire walk home (it’s generally a pleasant enough suburban neighborhood, but there is the occasional crime in the area and there’s almost no street light, which turns every shadowy passerby into a potential misogynistic psychopath).
So maybe there are problems in other parts of the world, presenting us with a stark dichotomy of gender access, and this isn’t the fault of the authors or editors of any one travel volume. But my other complaint was the way the writers themselves, these American men, talked about the cultures they visited, in particular foreign women, their interactions with them and how they are treated by their countrymen: what I like to call the American gaze.
In particular, two stories rubbed me the wrong way. The first was “The Woman in the Kuffiya,” by Jeffrey Tayler. You might already be apprehensive because of the title. I was too.
“The Woman in the Kuffiya” is a short, three-page personal anecdote originally published on WorldHum.com. In it, Jeffrey Tayler retells a brief encounter he had with an Arab woman in southeastern Turkey, near the Syrian border, in a town called Harran. He is walking along a road by himself, “lost in thoughts about history and the Bible.” Then, the young woman in the kuffiya, or red-and-white-checked Arab scarf, pulls up her horse-drawn cart and offers him a ride. She speaks no English, and he converses with her in his limited Arabic. Her name is Hawa’. He asks if she is married, she is. She offers him fresh baked bread. She complains about the men in her village and how lazy they are.
But mostly, Tayler is captivated by her beauty. When she first releases her kuffiya, it unmasks “a comely, full-lipped mouth and clear bronzed skin.” Aware of the fact that he is in an Islamic country, he tries to avoid staring, but “she was just too beautiful.”
When they reach his destination, he turns to say goodbye, and they share a charged gaze filled with a shared “repressed lust.” Then she readjusts her kuffiya and moves on.
Tayler ends by contemplating the strength of his attraction to this woman. The last two lines:
“The oft-maligned Islamic custom of purdah does much to preserve passion in its most urgent and ineffable form. No topless beach has ever, to me, looked the same after Harran.”
I’m really not sure how to take this. On the one hand, he could be commenting on the paradoxical tendency of sexual repression to perversely promote sexuality and bring it to the forefront of thought, something Foucault wrote about and Russell Brand adapted in a bit to apply to the Jonas Brothers’ purity rings, which I don’t disagree with. But what else is happening here? Is he Orientalizing/fetishizing Islamic womanhood? Is he placing an entire culture and its participants within the context of his own male, desirous American gaze? (“Gee whiz, I don’t really believe in women covering themselves, but now that you mention it, it’s pretty awesome for my libido.”)
Admittedly, it’s a brief, subjective piece, and it’s Tayler artfully, un-self-consciously reproducing the experience exactly as he lived it. But sometimes the way we live things doesn’t deserve to be transferred unfiltered from head to page, where it can sit with an undue sense of its own weight and authority.
The second story was “Looking for Mammon in the Muslim World,” by Seth Stevenson, originally published on Slate.com, about the author’s through-the-looking-glass trip to Dubai. This one I was a little more ambivalent about, because in some ways it feels like it could have been written by the male me. Like “The Woman in the Kuffiya,” it’s more overtly subjective than most of the other essays in this collection, and the dude doesn’t try to hide his insanely American and Western worldview. In fact, he comes off sounding like he’s never even been a travel writer before this moment—there’s a sense of innocent wonder in his story lacking in the work of the other writers, who tend to favor feigned objectivity or, at the very least, wry appreciation.
On the flip side, Stevenson’s naïveté also means he seems to have embarked on this little journey with only the shallowest understanding of Islam and the Arab world, likely gleaned from cable news channels and newspaper headlines. His mission: to understand the bizarre spectacle of capitalism in the middle of the Middle Eastern desert that is Dubai, and to extrapolate that to grandiose statements and solutions on the East-West cultural divide. For him Dubai is confounding: how can the Arab world have its own answer to Las Vegas? How can a religion so often at odds with Western civilization enjoy the fruits of our decadent, consumerist system?
For the most part he tackles these questions with humor and levity, and for the most part that’s fine. But at one point, he goes into a little “aside” in which he lists three bones he has to pick with the way women are treated in the U.A.E. He puts these “bones” in list form, which was such a total me move that I almost liked him for it—but then, the content of this aside was stunning in its ignorance (not me, I hope):
“1. It seems horribly unfair that the men’s dishdashas are white, while the women’s long cloaks (called abayas) are black. I ask you: Which would you rather wear beneath a blazing desert sun? If Arab culture weren’t otherwise so progressive on gender issues, I might say this was a clever means of discouraging women from leaving the house.
2. The unfairness becomes crystal clear when you go to the beach here. The Emirati women keep their abayas on. Meanwhile, their husbands strip down to tight, short bathing suits—exposing their flabby stomachs and hairy backs.
3. I’m fine with the headscarf that covers the hair. (This seems not unlike wearing a yarmulke.) But the face veil is fundamentally different and, in my view, not okay. One cannot happily contribute to society when one has no face. The veil transforms women into a pair of downcast eyes. And again, it seems, more than anything else, like an enticement to stay at home.”
Oh. Kay. So. Many things wrong. Here.
…Let me respond with my own mini-listicle.
1. Seth, you’re speculating. Nothing else in this fun little story gives me any confidence that you’ve studied Arab history, social or sartorial, so I’d be careful about making any bold hypotheses on the development of gender practices, lest you influence a young mind as impressionable as your own. Read: Your one visit doesn’t make you an expert. And that whole “progressive on gender issues” line? Just snarky. Especially because I feel like you’d be one of those people who’d ask me how much I had to cover myself in Lebanon and how hot it was in the desert there. (For those people: No more than here, and Lebanon isn’t desert.)
2. Considering your #1 and #2 make the implicit assumption that these hypothetical beachgoing couples are Arab, your observation on the hairy backs sounds vaguely racist.
3. Oh, so we’re starting from the place where all things associated with Jewish culture or religion are deemed “good” and a Western-sanctioned benchmark as to what types of head coverings are acceptable? Alright, so with that potentially flawed premise, let it be known that Seth is fine with the headscarf, but he draws the line at the face veil (as he calls it). “Not okay,” says Seth. Those women are oppressed, those men are bad, and Seth is standing by shaking his head. It’s just that simple, people.
Anyway. Believe it or not, this wasn’t the part that gave me the most pause. The pausiest part was later, as Seth tries to wrap up all of his uninformed observations and cultural aggrandizement in one neat little bow, if that bow were a horrible anecdote that somehow managed to be offensive to both Western and Eastern sensibilities at the same time.
It happens when he and a friend go to a club called Cyclone, which is full of prostitutes. The scene disturbs him: young, attractive women playing up to old, bald men, as security looks on to make sure “transactions” are made outside of the club and not in. He even notes the “desperation” in the air, as strong as the scent of one of the Hungarian hooker’s perfume. After scurrying out:
“Let it be said: I have witnessed sexual deviance being tolerated—or at least ignored—within the borders of a Muslim country. And I’m declaring it a promising sign. If there’s one thing the West and the Middle East can come together on, it’s a Hungarian hooker.”
Whether or not this was slightly tongue-in-cheek (it may have been, but still ultimately fit with the overall earnestness of his article), this sentiment kind of took me aback. Coming together over the shared notion of women as prostitutes? Hookers as preferable to women wearing veils? Middle Eastern society being viewed as “progressing” no matter what attribute of Western society it adopts/shares? So creepy in so many ways. (And really: you witnessed sexual deviancy in an Arab, Muslim country? Do tell! …This is kind of like the moment when you’re a certain age and you realize your parents had to have sex to have you.)
Note that the entire essay was written from the point of view of someone who clearly deemed himself a progress-minded liberal, who ended his little story by criticizing some British teenagers who called the Arabs backwards. Racist teenagers. Always easy bait. (See: Twitter.)
These were the two stories that I found the most problematic, maybe in part because of my own focus on the Middle East. But there were others, other stories that produced uneasiness about the nature of the white, male, American gaze, activated in a foreign land. “African Promise” by J. Malcolm Garcia, which unquestioningly adopts the ironic phrase of the title. “Dark Passage” by Peter Gwin, which comfortably revisits Heart of Darkness for the 21st century. “Wheels of Fortune” by Peter Hessler, which basically talks about how much everyone sucks at driving in China.
Travel literature by its very nature must be subjective, a reflection of the society the writer represents entering the society the writer visits. For the American traveler, the American gaze is unavoidable. But I wonder—as a newcomer to the genre—can you write around it? Can I take the scribblings in my travel journals of yore, which admittedly contain signs of my own American gaze, and translate them into something I’d be comfortable publishing? Do Americans have to encounter the world this way—so limited, yet so assured?
I’d be interested to know. Because I kind of want to be a travel writer.
I’ve been going to Elephant Bar for years. It’s the Applebee’s of pseudo-Asian food of indeterminate origin: satisfying, unspectacular, and full of families on Saturday nights. I can’t count how many times I’ve enjoyed the plain teriyaki chicken and rice dish alongside an embarrassingly fruity cocktail, chatting with friends over the noise of crying children. For whatever reason—okay, an obvious one being that there are very few places to eat in Cupertino– I keep coming back.
So it was with great surprise that, on my last visit, I stopped, looked around, and said, “Holy shit. This place is an Orientalist wonderland.”
I can’t really say why I never noticed that before. Note that this realization came after three years spent getting a graduate degree in history, in a department where Edward Said is mentioned in everyday conversation (not to mention he’s painted on the front of our freaking bookstore!) and that, particularly in my exams semester, British empire was a huge focus and whatever hypersensitivity to empire nostalgia I already had during this time was undoubtedly heightened.
The giant elephant in the front of the restaurant: well, that’s unavoidable. The animal skin prints that sweep parts of the décor—zebra, giraffe, tiger—aren’t exactly subtle either. The turn-of-the-century, slow-sweeping fans brushing back and forth along the ceiling are a nice touch. They always remind me of the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland. On this particular visit, however, I also finally noticed the late 19th-century-style European trunks with travel stickers reading “Zanzibar” and “Timbuktu” that serve as ambient decoration over some of the booths.
Tie all these pan-African and –Indian elements together with Elephant Bar’s commitment to serving pan-(East)Asian-infused cuisine and you have—tah dah!—an Orientalist wonderland, just like I said. It’s a campy, Disneyish mixture of the exotic with cavalier disregard for specific geographies. The trunks definitively indicate that the overarching tie-in to this mish-mash of “the Rest” (see: Niall Ferguson, below) is the pan-British Empire.
Elephant Bar is by no means the only establishment to capitalize on our collective British imperial nostalgia. There’s this colonial African-themed wedding that made headlines last year for its callous obliviousness, down to hiring black servants to fill the colonial-era black-servant-costumes. And in Victoria, British Columbia for a graduate conference about (aptly) race, I got the chance to visit the landmark Fairmont Empress hotel in downtown Victoria. Now, Victoria is a beautiful remnant of British hegemony, in some ways Britishier than Britain, still celebrating tea time and replete with Queen Victoria statue and British colonial buildings and even slightly, slightly British accents. Inside the Empress, past the gorgeous tea room that’s a must-do for tourists, across from the Authentic Native Art store, there is the absolute centerpiece of Orientalist fantasy—the Bengal Lounge.
Its name emblazoned across a gong-like hanging sign. Slow-sweeping British-in-India style fans brushing the ceiling. A complete tiger skin plastered over the fireplace. It was a place of great diversion for me and my fellow conferencers, at the same time that it was, of course, slightly horrifying. Orientalist and nostalgic to the very core.
What’s most striking to me about the brand of imperial nostalgia exemplified by Elephant Bar and the Bengal Lounge and other such places isn’t that it’s pervasive or offensive or wrong. It’s that it’s so, well, nostalgic.
I recognize and welcome it even as I conscientiously object to it. There’s something warm and familiar about the trappings of British society in the tropical jungles of India and Africa– the giant, sticker-laden trunks, the loose cotton dresses, the pith helmets. That’s because, culturally, this setting is interwoven into some of our most beloved literature and film classics and thus into our collective historical fantasy. As hard as I try, I can’t help but associate good memories with this setting, even though I never lived it, even though I recognize it as a dark time/phenomenon in the history of human and global interaction.
In The Secret Garden, Mary has spent her whole childhood in India, born to Britisher parents in the Empire’s Crown Jewel. Her neglectful socialite parents are lost in a cholera outbreak in their colonial home early on in the book, which is the reason Mary is sent to live with a distant relation on the Yorkshire moors (where she discovers the titular landscaping).
In The Jungle Book—well, in almost any Rudyard Kipling book—we’re in deepest India. More notably for my childhood, the 1994 Disney live-action “reimagining” of the story casts a 20-year-old Mowgli against a British colonial presence which involves him falling in love with a British officer’s daughter (Lena Headey) and becoming the love rival of another officer (Cary Elwes). Notably, Indian native Mowgli is played by Chinese-American actor Jason Scott Lee.
In Disney’s Tarzan, we’re in 19th-century Africa, where a white man orphaned by jungle cats and raised by apes is discovered by a British professor’s daughter, who he subsequently falls in love with. Tarzan is wild, raised in the primitive African jungle setting, and their romance holds undertones of the savage meeting the “civilized man.
In The Mummy, we’re in 1920s Egypt, at the time in a state of limbo regarding independence from Britain (achieved in 1922 but conditional until 1936). Swashbuckling American adventurer O’Connell and half-Egyptian love interest Evie unleash a mummy’s curse and enlist the help of memorable characters like WWI RAF veteran Winston, now a tottering hard-drinking regular at a Cairo bar, who puts his adorable pilot’s cap and goggles back on to fly them in his biplane over the dunes to the mummy’s lost city. Notably, the major Egyptian characters are played by an Israeli (Oded Fehr), a South African (Arnold Vosloo), an Indian (Erick Avari), an Irish American (Kevin J. O’Connor), and a Venezuelan (Patricia Velazquez). Non-major Egyptian characters either perish from pressurized salt booby traps or join the boils-ridden “Imhotep”-chanting mob.
In Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom, the second installment of the 1980s trilogy (let’s discount Crystal Skull, shall we?), we visit colonial India alongside the intrepid American archaeologist-adventurer. Plenty of people have already complained about the problematic racial representations in this film—mostly the centerpiece of barbaric Indian devil-worshipers who serve as the villains. It’s the 1930s, but we don’t see too many Britishers, so not a huge representation of imperial nostalgia. But definitely Orientalist.
In the Adventureland area in Disneyland, next to the Indiana Jones ride (which creates a new story for the franchise vaguely reminiscent but wholly separate from Temple of Doom), the Jungle Cruise takes you down a simulated Zambezi or Congo or somesuch to see exotic African animals and a few savage natives (all animatronic of course), proctored by humorous guides in khaki shorts. The Bazaar sells kitschy souvenirs like rain sticks and plush monkeys and safari gear. Aladdin’s Dinner Show sits next to the Enchanted Tiki Room. The former Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse now belongs to Tarzan.
In Heart of Darkness, the reader is struck with the same fear and wonder as the narrator Marlowe as his riverboat plunges deeper and deeper into darkest Africa, as he represents a structured British civilization slowly slipping away. Strange sounds reverberate from the trees at night; mute savages lay dying in groves; animalistic fury seems to sit just beneath the surface of every native worker. Terror and madness only await the British man who ventures that deep into the continent. This terror and madness is recast into the Vietnamese jungles for Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and, maybe a little bit (but with more of a dry heat), into Iraq for Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker.
What does it all boil down to? Well, I suppose that British imperial nostalgia is burrowed into my very being. I was raised on the stuff, indoctrinated by 19th-century British authors and the 20th-century filmmakers who adapted their stories and the theme parks and theme restaurants who used their accoutrements as décor. I am guilty of British imperial nostalgia, even as I am critical of British empire.
This brings us to the very obvious point that, even as one is critical of empire, one cannot reject everything that occurred under empire. These were people’s lives—these were people’s lived experiences—these were generations of people, centuries of culture, centuries of innovation and production and literature and art and philosophy and knowledge.
Now don’t go all Niall Ferguson on me. Just because you accept that the cultural remnants of British empire are not completely without value (depending, of course, on how they are executed—most new recreations of empire are inherently problematic, but we’re obviously not going to disavow The Jungle Book) does not mean you promote and defend the very idea of British empire, nor promote and defend its modern-day inheritors (for Ferguson, American empire). As Ferguson so astutely points out in Empire, British empire brought plenty of “good” things to the world: liberty, Common Law, Protestantism, the English language, and team sports. Where would we be without these things? We’d probably be fine. But at the same time we don’t know what we would be. That’s the unavoidable, tragic, true point. It happened. And it forever altered the trajectory of global history. And it gave us a past to be nostalgic about, willingly or not.
I feel like, regardless of how I try to rationalize it, my British imperial nostalgia will continue to be tempered by a guilt that will, ultimately, result in an extreme ambivalence. So I won’t be boycotting Elephant Bar just yet. Empire is problematic. But empire happened.
Let’s start this off: Yes, I watch America’s Next Top Model. It’s so entertaining. I love it. The format is concise, the pictures are easy to judge and alternately beautiful or terrible, and the girls are from all different backgrounds and their inevitable clashes make for awesome TV. Let’s just start off by buying into this basic premise, that I watch this ridiculous show.
Now we can continue. So this past season was marketed as “British Invasion,” meaning half of the contestants were from Britain (and had previously competed on Britain’s Next Top Model) and half were from America (and had never competed). On average I liked the British girls about 95% more than the Americans, and not just to be contrary but because they were honestly funnier and cuter and more interesting than the “Yanks,” but that’s neither here nor there.
Amidst all the manufactured competition between Britain and America, which included repeatedly dividing them into teams along national lines and having them wear flag-print lipstick (to really gross effect), there were a few much more interesting things going on that had less to do with nationality and more with race. Despite the fact that two white contestants ended up in the finale, the show had a fair representation of black contestants as well as one Native American (much-hyped as “the first in Top Model history” for the two episodes she lasted). But inevitably some questionable shit went down, some of which has been nagging at me, so I want to break it down for you into a Top 3 countdown.
3) Mariah as Pocahontas. The very first challenge involved all of the girls dressing up as a historic figure from their (two) respective countries. “Historic” was taken pretty liberally, as characters ranged from George Washington to John Lennon to Michelle Obama to Princess Di. For the most part, the girls’ roles traversed racial and gender lines, but guess who (token) Native American girl Mariah was assigned! No, really, guess. You’ll get it right.
POCAHONTAS. Obvi. So she’s there, jumping on a trampoline in fringe, doing her best model-y Pocahontas. It’s ridiculous, but it’s not the worst part. At the judging, her picture was a little lifeless, and the judges gave her an especially harsh critique and almost sent her home because (I’m paraphrasing) she should know how to do Pocahontas because she’s Native American. What this means (what a lot of modeling speak means!) I have no idea, and why little 18-year-old Mariah from Pendleton, Oregon doing a modeling competition in 2012 should be any better than any of the other girls at channeling a 17th-century Powhatan princess, while jumping on a trampoline, is completely lost on me. I’m pretty sure the judges had only ever met one Native American, and they’d also only ever heard of one other Native American, and so the two just kind of, you know, made sense together and must be, kind of, pretty much the same thing.
2) Analiese in bananas. Perky presenter-type Analiese from England makes it to the final three, the last black girl standing (as she herself points out), and along with fellow finalists Sophie and Laura (both white) is sent out on go-sees with designers around Hong Kong. One particularly zany designer whose name I forget, and who happens to be white (British? Australian?) has the girls walk in his costumes; and they really are costumes, in the sense that they’re theatrical and ridiculous. He takes one look at blond Sophie and says, “I’m seeing Marie Antoinette,” and gives her a giant 18th-century gown to wear and walk in. Later, Laura is dressed in a red-sequined dress that he likens to a disco ball.
What does Analiese get? Basically, a fuzzyish bikini to which dangly plush bananas are attached. She’s psyched, she loves it, she gives a great walk, he loves her, he thinks she’s great, he books her. All of this is fine, except, what? What the hell kind of costume is this? I don’t know if it was supposed to be Neanderthal, or native, or jungle set piece, but whatever it was, it was certainly a far cry from what the other girls were dressed in, and in the worst kind of way. I’m willing to bet that whatever this zany Anglo HK-based designer was “seeing” was rooted in some kind of unconscious sartorial-cum-historical/cultural-institutional racism.
1) Kyle as the girl next door. Finally, my favorite not-favorite moment. A Swedish guy who does branding advice for a living comes in to help the girls develop their individual “brands.” To see how audiences react to their brands (e.g. “regal,” “youthful,” “rock ‘n’ roll”), they are each assigned to do an informal 30-second commercial talking about some silly product. Then, they are surprised to find out their commercials are being shown to a focus group, and the girls, along with delightfully over-the-top gender-bending series staple Miss Jay, watch the focus group from another room.
A few of the girls clearly did a good job, including Alisha, one of my favorites, a dark-skinned long-legged girl from South London. A few clearly didn’t, including Kyle, one of my least favorites, a bland dark-blond girl from Texas, whose delivery was stiff and uncharismatic, though well-enunciated. But here’s what the (American, mostly-white) focus group had to say:
On Kyle: “Love her. She’s great. She’s got this great girl-next-door look.”
On Alisha: “I don’t like her, uh…. African accent.”
(Note: Alisha is from South London. She has a South London accent.)
After that last statement, there was visible, audible shock in the models’ room. Alisha’s jaw drops, and Miss Jay utters something in surprise, and no one seems to know what to say. The focus group then votes on their favorites, and one of the top three is Kyle. (Lest you think these focus folk are flat-out racists, they also chose Analiese for their top three, who as noted before is perky and cute and also has actual presenter experience.)
Later, tensions break out between the models. (This sentence is necessary in any Top Model recap.) Ebony and Alisha can’t help but point out that Kyle didn’t do that well, but was still chosen by the focus group. Race isn’t explicitly mentioned, but there is clearly resentment around this idea of who can be a “girl next door.” Kyle, feeling attacked, breaks down and cries and says she wants to go home. Yes, this is typically how Top Model fights go.
What Kyle doesn’t understand is that Ebony and Alisha had a point. While she didn’t do anything wrong, personally, she also didn’t do anything right that merited her advantage over those girls (or, at least, Alisha; Ebony’s commercial was pretty bad). That’s kind of how the P-word works (rhymes with “divilege”). Being a “girl-next-door”—and hence, automatically likable– is an available option only to certain girls. Unfortunately, that’s also kind of how branding and marketing work, so in a really sad way the focus group also had a point, depending what your ultimate goal is. To perpetuate the system or not to perpetuate the system?
Honorable Mention: Not a racist moment, but just a nice honest moment that I appreciated. The models are paired up with young girls who have been bullied, to work together on an anti-bullying PSA. Alisha’s little girl, who has tan skin and curly dark brown hair, says she doesn’t feel pretty, and Alisha asks, whyever not? The girl says her hair, her eyes, her skin are the wrong color. Alisha gets emotional, saying she has felt the same way, but never to let that get you down because you are beautiful. Empowerment, encouragement, etcetera. (Camera zooms in on tears like sharks to blood in the water.)
And I understood too, because there was a point in my childhood where I sincerely wished that I had white skin, blond hair, and blue eyes, because that’s what I thought beauty was. There are ethnic Barbies, but you always know what Barbie is supposed to look like. While it was never a deep-seated issue for me, it still came up, and it could definitely be addressed more often to help divorce our notions of beauty from ethnic chauvinism, for both girls and women. Though admittedly, if we want to start getting into our notions of beauty, there’s a lot more there that needs to be fixed, even right here on Top Model…but one thing at a time, right okay.
I subscribe to a Google alert for “racism.” It was actually just a test run for my job– I hadn’t used Google alerts before so wanted to try it, and as far as buzz words go “racism” is the gift that keeps on giving– but anyway, it’s been like four months and I haven’t turned it off.
Yesterday, after four months of almost daily reminders of the ongoing debate in Europe over racism in football, this came up. I don’t know much about European football, so I couldn’t comment on it much before, but I DO know Agatha Christie.
I think it’s a really interesting point that John Barnes brings up. Britain’s imperial, racist history can be easily found in its rich body of literature, so much of which we still know and love today. It’s the same in American literature: I regularly encounter the N-word in the pre-1960 books I read (most recently, in Henry Miller and William Faulkner) and even when it’s used by black characters or used in what might be an “authentic” manner of capturing period dialogue, it’s really uncomfortable and a constant reminder of what used to be okay, what used to be normal. (Being white.)
Kipling and Christie, as Barnes points out, both make up part of the British cultural landscape which has been complicit in horrific imperial violence and possessing of uncouth racist attitudes. They both represent a complacency of white superiority, British global supremacy, cultural chauvinism. But in that, they aren’t always so different from other writers. And the two served very different functions in British culture.
Rudyard Kipling was the poet of empire, an Anglo-Indian who celebrated British imperialism, and a Nobel Prize winner. His writing—most obviously, “The White Man’s Burden,” the poster poem for the civilizing mission—was almost activist in its stance towards the Empire, actively pro-, practically propaganda.
Take up the White Man’s burden–
Send forth the best ye breed–
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild–
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.
Oh-ho and that shit is just the first stanza. When I first came across this poem in an upper-division undergraduate class on the American Gilded Age (can’t remember, but was probably a tie-in to American empire), naïve and un-historically-informed as I was, I honestly assumed it was a work of satire, a criticism of empire as evidenced by its over-the-top, gushing profuseness. I was made to stand corrected. He’s serious as a heart attack. In effect, he’s saying, “God, it’s really hard being a white guy because we have to go all the way to these inhospitable tropical places, subdue the peoples, and then we have the responsibility to civilize them too! But in the end it’s okay, because we are so brave and selfless for doing it. Aaaaaaaand that’s the British Empire.” (musical tag!)
Agatha Christie, meanwhile, was not an active promoter of empire. Her treatment of race was more implicit—a complacent white superiority as well as a staunchly hobbit-like British xenophobia towards all non-British nationals—these attitudes formed the setting for her stories but were not the focus. People point most often to Ten Little N*****s, which was the original title for her famously creepy And Then There Were None. The titular minorities have no bearing on the story whatsoever except that whoever the killer is (no spoilers) keeps removing a single toy figure from the dining room each time someone else is knocked off—in the original story they were little black dolls, were then changed to Indians—the title was duly changed to Ten Little Indians (not quite as offensive) but eventually that was changed to its present And Then There Were None, the last line of the corresponding children’s poem about the N-words/Indians. (God, how disturbing would that be if there was an actual children’s poem of the N-word version! Don’t know if I want to find out.)
But it’s evident in a number of her other books as well (and she has a ridiculous catalogue which I have steadily devoured for the past 15 years but still haven’t even made a dent in). I remember a Greek character, married to a wallflower British sister, who, while charming and pleasant in speech, had a kind a furtiveness to his manner that marked him as permanently untrustworthy to the main characters (not to mention his swarthy complexion!). I can’t count how many times one of the regular witnesses who Poirot/Miss Marple/&tc interview says something to the effect of, “Well, he’s a foreigner, you know” to explain away some defect, some indefinable lack of character. And of course, there are those exotic journeys that form the basis for Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile which invariably have native servants as background characters, who are invariably not-quite-trustworthy, not-quite-human. (Of course, her portrayal of the British servant class isn’t all that much better—you can trust them, at least, but they’re really stupid.)
Agatha Christie’s oeuvre, as a whole, serves the function of what Edward Said describes in Culture and Imperialism: a complacent understanding of a world dominated by British imperialism, not unlike Fanny Price’s uncle and his Antiguan estate in Mansfield Park, which Said uses as evidence of empire as background, something taken for granted but simultaneously reinforced. Christie’s work also touches on empire, albeit much later in its lifetime; but, like so much literature, her work is racism as background, xenophobia as background. She wasn’t promoting it, per se, so much as refracting the cultural setting back into the mainstream and, thus, contributing to its longevity. Like most authors, really; she just wrote a whole damn lot. From short story “The Pearl of Price”:
“What is honesty?” demanded the Frenchman. “It is a nuance, a convention. In different countries it means different things. An Arab is not ashamed of stealing. He is not ashamed of lying. With him it is from whom he steals and to whom he lies that matters.”
“That is the point of view- yes,” agreed Carver.
“Which shows the superiority of the West over the East,” said Blundell. “When these poor creatures get education-“
So ultimately this all comes down to the age-old question of how much harm works of art and literature from different eras, eras with worldviews out-of-sync with our own to the point of offensiveness, can do to our present. I’m against the erasure of the past, so simply banning or limiting the circulation of important cultural works is out of the question. They just need to be accompanied by an education, an understanding of the historical context and how that has changed then to now. ‘Cause I swear, sometimes reading enough Agatha Christie, immersing myself in her universe, I’ll be nodding along, oh yes, he’s Turkish, he’s a scoundrel for sure.
You know who else Agatha Christie didn’t like? Hippies. But that’s another story for another time.
Here’s a good roundup of Agatha Christie moments, chiefly Orientalist. My lack of familiarity with the titles is further testament to her prolific-ness.
Last Friday night, my boyfriend and I were arguing about Ray Bradbury in Target.
Well, “arguing” might be a strong word. It was more like a vigorous debate. And during such debates, my normally socially inhibited self suddenly forgets that other Target shoppers can hear the argumentative overtones of our conversation and my exasperated denunciations of “super old white dudes.”
Okay, I wasn’t straight up denouncing old white dudes. My grandpa was one, and so were some of my favorite authors. What it was, was this:
Ray Bradbury. My boyfriend recently finished both The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451. I myself haven’t read Fahrenheit 451 since ninth grade, and I didn’t like it. Paul says I should give it another try. I agree with this assessment.
What I didn’t agree with was Paul’s summary of Bradbury’s position (the position, not the summary) on so-called “minority voices.” Bradbury felt — and this was part of where Fahrenheit came from — that art should be free from the meddling and censorship of people who felt offended or took issue with any part of the artist’s work. Specifically, he brings up, there were a couple instances when he was written to and chastised(?) for not having greater minority representation in The Martian Chronicles. “No strong female characters,” a woman wrote. “No African-American characters,” an African-American wrote.
Apparently, this really pissed Bradbury off. I mean, I’m with him up to the censorship point. But lumping these “minority voices” in with whitewashed school editions and straight-up book banners makes Bradbury look like the asshole. Venturing into both the wrong side and the logical conclusion of the artistic expression debate: “Leave my work the f*** alone, even if I’m a racist old bastard perpetuating white male hegemony.”
For the record, I don’t really think Bradbury is a racist old bastard. What bothers me isn’t the fact that his casts were so white, or his heroes so male. It isn’t his demand for artistic freedom, or his morality in Fahrenheit (which I think can be read and appreciated from a lot of different angles, all over the political spectrum). What bothers me is his entitlement to complain so profusely about “minority voices.” It’s his position as a sci-fi writer of great repute, great success, who feels affronted by a few non-influential minority group representatives who, lacking the power to effect widespread change on a culture that overwhelmingly fails to represent them, had the gall to voice their concerns to him in ultimately ineffectual written missives.
I don’t know how passionate or how enduring a cause this is in Bradbury’s life, so I don’t know how much to hold it against him (though if this 1996 Playboy interview is any indication, it stuck with him for decades). I’ve read other letters he’s written, including this one to a teenage fan, and he actually seems like an entirely charming and funny guy. So I want to like him, very much.
What this all, also, gets into is the wider issue of minority representation in media and culture– almost an “affirmative action” of sorts, most recently embodied in the criticisms around HBO’s new series “Girls” (which quickly evolved/devolved into a debate about hipster racism). In a society and culture machine still dominated by whites, do white artists have a responsibility to represent minority voices? If they don’t, are they entitled to complain incessantly that people are telling them they do? If they are, is there a way they can do it without sounding like an asshole?
Sci-Fi Side Note: Been watching the Alien franchise for the first time. My favorite is Alien, Ridley Scott’s 1979 original. It’s for a lot of reasons– including the fact that its closest competitor, James Cameron’s Aliens sequel, is essentially the same plot with more people, more explosions and a little girl instead of a cat– but I especially love how the last three people in Alien to survive are the two women and the black guy. Ripley, of course, being a particularly kick-ass white lady. Ostensible white male hero (Dallas, no less) is murdered in the middle of the pack. Hurray for defied expectations.
So in conclusion:
Can I still like Fahrenheit 451?
Can I still like Ferris Bueller? (John Hughes was apparently some kind of hardcore Reaganite conservative.)
Does it make a big difference what the intent of the work was — if it can be received differently? If the creator’s political views actually were not expressed, intentionally or unintentionally, in the work?
All in all Ray Bradbury is and will continue to be an old white dude– hanging in strong at 91. Enjoy his books, enjoy him; just don’t hafta agree with everything he says.
Bradbury: Even more depressing is that I foresaw political correctness 43 years ago.
Playboy: In Fahrenheit 451, too?
B: Yes. [At one point, another character,] the fire chief, describes how the minorities, one by one, shut the mouths and minds of the public, suggesting a precedent: The Jews hated Fagin and Shylock – burn them both, or at least never mention them. The blacks didn’t like N***** Jim floating on Huck’s raft with him – burn, or at least hide, him. Women’s libbers hated Jane Austen as an awfully inconvenient woman in a dreadfully old-fashioned time – off with her head! Family-values groups detested Oscar Wilde – back in the closet, Oscar! Communists hated the bourgeoisie – shoot them! An on and on it goes. So whereas back then I wrote about the tyranny of the majority, today I’d combine that with the tyranny of the minorities. These days, you have to be careful of both. They both want to control you. The first group, by making you do the same thing over and over again. The second group is indicated by the letters I get from the Vassar girls who want me to put more women’s lib in The Martian Chronicles, or from blacks who want more black people in Dandelion Wine.
P: Do you respond to them?
B: I say to both bunches, Whether you’re a majority or minority, bug off! To hell with anybody who wants to tell me what to write. Their society breaks down into subsections of minorities who then, in effect, burn books by banning them. All this political correctness that’s rampant on campuses is b.s. You can’t fool around with the dangerous notion of telling a university what to teach and what not to. If you don’t like the curriculum, go to another school. Faculty members who toe the same line are sanctimonious nincompoops! It’s time to stop the trend. Whenever it appears, you should yell, “Idiot!” and back them down. In the same vein, we should immediately bar all quotas, which politicize the process through lowered admission standards that accept less-qualified students. The terrible result is the priceless chance lost by all.
I usually turn off Wheel of Fortune before they can get to Fortune (you know: Wheel! Of! TV off.) and I tend to think of its guests as people not smart enough to be on Jeopardy, Wheel’s 7:00 syndicated lead-in, but every once in a while I leave it on long enough to watch Vanna walk all the way across that stage and to hear Pat introduce the first glorified Hangman puzzle of the night, and then sometimes it just stays on til the end.
The other night, when such a thing happened, one of the themes or special trips or whatever the hell they do on that show produced a particularly offensive graphic called the “Exotic Far East.” The lettering approximated bamboo and was set against some kind of rice-paddy background. And was there a gong* or does my memory insert one? After this little display of Orientalism the camera cuts to Pat Sajak (in banter, a far superior host to Alex Trebek, but he lacks Alex’s socially inept brand of charisma—my family and I like to make fun of Alex but I think we’d all be very, very sad if he left) and Pat, glib as ever, muses, “Do they call us the Exotic Far West?” Pause. “Anyway–“ and the show went on.
It was the briefest moment of lucidity in what I guess I’d call the realm of mainstream culture as opposed to what I guess I’d call the realm of cultural criticism. Words like “exotic” and “mysterious,” images like chopsticks and dragons and fortune cookies, sounds like gongs* (Andrew Ti knows what I’m talking about) remain entrenched and are the lazy man’s racist stand-in for East Asia (and, at ESPN, for Palo Alto). I both abhorred and appreciated this game-show moment because, while the graphic and segment title were annoying, for just a second, Pat shook himself as if awakening from a dream, looked around, and said, “What is happening? Where am I? Why should the East be exotic?” And then sold some vowels.
Pat, it’s appreciated, now keep on hosting your mediocre game show. Vanna, you anti-feminist icon, don’t even get me started on you.
– “Community” Season 1 Episode 1: intro to Senor Chang
– How to Make a Chinese or Japanese Book Cover, by James Morrison (The Society Pages)
– “Message from a Nightingale” scene, The Drowsy Chaperone, 2006 Broadway musical
*Musician’s Note: The type of gong used to produce the sound that typically accompanies terrible stereotypes is called a “tamtam.” It makes a crash-like wash of noise, as opposed to the “nipple” gong which has that Zen-like (dang! now I’m doing it) low-pitched ring.