At about the 5 minute mark, there is an exchange that I found deeply disconcerting but also very illuminating.
Q:You are a gay, black Washington Post Columnist and much celebrated. Are you, is this, your America? Are you worried it will become another America?
A: That is a very powerful question John, and it moves me almost into silence, because, um, the election of President Obama was a great moment for this country… and now we stand two months away from…from all of that disappearing [here he begins to weep]… And as an African American, as an openly gay man, and as an American, that frightens me.
Watching Jonathan Capehart break down out of fear because his candidate lost an election… at first I thought it was almost juvenile, hysterical even (in the old sense of caused by uncontrolled extreme emotion, not the humorous sense). Capehart is more then just a well established, well respected and frequently awarded journalist, at least one site lists his net worth “considered to be $3 million“.
But it occurs to me that in this man, a well respected multimillionaire journalist, we see the same pathology that is running rampant in the the Social Justice Warriors and Inter-sectional Feminists (etc, etc) on college campuses all across the Anglosphere. He has allowed himself to be terrified, to become a victim in his own mind. A victim of his own accusations against someone else.
He’a convinced himself that Trump, a man who was a rich New York liberal until only a few years ago, a man who has a Jewish daughter, a Jewish son in-law, and two Jewish daughters in-law, is but a toothbrush-mustache away from being Neo-Hitler.
The same Donald Trump that, at the end of the interview, Capehart describes as being warm and charming when Capehart interviewed him personally!
I can’t help but think about the protesters that accosted Professor Peterson only a few weeks ago. Protesters that accused him of not only attracting Nazis to his rally with his rhetoric, but that his words were the proximate cause of teen suicides.
It really is both amazing and dismaying. Whether on campus or in the campaigns, it seems that the only thing the pursuit of Social Justice has produced is an ever greater number of victims.
In order to show the world that minority characters are not bad people, one will step forward to help a “normal” person, with their pure heart and folksy wisdom. They are usually black and/or poor, but may come from another oppressed minority.
The Social Justice/Politically Correctness/Diversity movement (the Diversity crowd, for short) has given rise to many strange, and often paradoxical, phenomena. One of the more distressing is a trap that simultaneously demands diversity while also punishing diversity. It starts with well meaning people that want more representation of women and minorities in popular culture. At the same time female and minority characters that deviate even slightly from the doctrines of the SJ/PC faith prompt the diversity crowd to erupt with toxic, and often very personal, criticism.
In shorthand I call this phenomenon ‘Magneto or Magical Negro’, and it begins with a binary decision;
–Either, the character is an individual, and both their virtues and their vices are simply the individual expressions of a given character,
-Or, the character is an avatar, representing their whole demographic. Thus their virtues are the virtues of their entire group, their vices the vices of the entire group, and their failings and limitations paint the entire group with the same brush.
The Diversity Crowd claims that they want morally complex, fully developed characters (Magneto), but their insistence on treating these characters as avatars leads to demanding flawless (thus one-dimensional) caricatures (‘Magical Negroes’). My paradigm example of this comes from the vastly different responses that two popular comic book characters received for very similar character moments: Micheal Fassbender’s Magneto in X-Men: First Class and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
In X-Men: First Class, we receive a great deal more backstory on the character of Magneto. Since 2000’s X-Men we’ve known that Magneto is a Holocaust survivor, now we learn the story of what happened to the boy last seen at the gates of a death camp, specifically the torment he endured at the hands of Nazi ‘doctor’ Sebastian Shaw. We follow Magneto in the post war years (what fans refer to with affection as the ‘Magneto, Nazi hunter’ scenes). After extracting information from a collaborating Swiss banker, he follows the lead on Shaw to a bar in Argentina, where he discovers several former colleagues of Shaw. What follows is a magnificently tense scene between the ex-patriot Nazis and the Holocaust survivor that eventually culminates in brutal revenge.
In Avengers: Age of Ultron the scene is dramatically different: early on the film establishes there is some form of relationship between the alter egos of Natalia (Natasha) ‘Black Widow’ Romanova and Bruce ‘Hulk’ Banner in the form of the ‘lullaby‘ (nickname for Natasha’s ability to sufficiently calm the Hulk that he reverts to his Banner form).
This, along with banter between Banner and Steve ‘Captain America’ Rodgers during the celebratory scene in Stark’s Avenger’s Tower, hints at Natasha’s desire for a deeper connection to Banner. It also establishes that banner is reticent (to say the least) about pursuing a romantic relationship with anyone, considering his own personal challenges.
Some time later in the film the Avengers are regrouping at a safe-house, having been handed a significant defeat by the villain Ultron. More importantly, Scarlet Witch (at this point acting as his agent) has tampered with the Avengers’ minds, leaving them emotionally shaken. It is in this context that Natasha makes an emotional appeal to Banner, trying to convert their relationship into something more… intimate.
In the course of this scene, Natasha responds to Banner’s fear that he can never provide her with children by noting that, along with the physical and emotional conditioning that made her an assassin for the Soviet State, she was also sterilized. He is not, she points out, not the only “monster” in the room. Unfortunatly for her, the Bruce Banner of Age of Ultron is very much the ‘Hulk is a curse’ version of the character familiar to fans of Bill Bixby’s long running series, and Banner cannot bring himself to accept Natasha’s romantic overtures.
Note that as different as the emotional tone and the content of these scenes are, the characters are actually revealing notable similarities between the characters;
-Both Magneto and Black Widow bear deep, emotional scars inflicted on them by tyrannical regimes (for Magneto the Nazis, for Black Widow the Soviets).
-Both had their childhoods stolen; First Class and Age of Ultron make clear that each character was subject to systematic abuse with the intent of turning them into living weapons.
-Finally, though neither serves their former tormentors, both characters recognize they have become ‘monsters’; one a man so driven that he is willing to do literally anything in the service of his cause (up to and including attempting to murder his long-time friend and ally Mystique in X-Men: Days of Future Past), the other driven by guilt over the ‘Red in her ledger’; an allusion to innumerable bloody deeds in the service of the Soviet State that Loki taunts her with in The Avengers.
So, of course, naturally these interesting character moments were equally well received? Well… no. Fassbender’s take on the character of Magneto in First Class was widely praised, to the extent that any criticism seems more oriented to the idea that Magneto is too sympathetic. Johansson’s Black Widow, by contrast, despite being fleshed out a great deal more then the (somewhat shallow) ‘action girl’ of the previous Iron Man and Avengers movie, was the subject of a torrent of criticism.
Magneto is not just a Jew but a Holocaust survivor. It’s a part of his character, and a very important part, but it is only a part. Black Widow was forcibly sterilized by a totalitarian regime, part of their process to make a more perfect assassin. It’s a part of her character, and a very important part, but it is only a part. Because the Diversity Crowd does not consider Jews a ‘minority’ (because reasons), Magneto is free to be a complex, flawed and… well, a ‘monster’. Because Black Widow “is the main female character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe” she thus can’t be permitted to admit emotional scars over a disturbingly physical, intimate violation.
Of course this isn’t the only example of this phenomenon; it’s not even the most recent. What do I mean? It’s the action-adventure movie that smashed box office records this summer. It’s proof that a cast starring four diverse women can attract both men and women. So why isn’t Suicide Squad getting the “Girl Power” treatment that the pool of box office ectoplasm that is Ghostbusters 2016 enjoyed?
Suicide Squad made more in its opening weekend then Ghostbusters has in the four weeks since release, and at first glance this would seem to be a triumph for ‘women protagonists in action movies’ movement. After all, by the standards of the diversity boosters it’s arguably an even better standard bearer then Ghostbusters 2016!
If your goal is ‘diversity’, it’s worth noting that GB2016 gauchely cast three Caucasian women as scientists while relegating their lone non-white lead character to the role of ‘street smarts’. By way of contrast, the lead cast of Suicide Squad features African American Viola Davis as Amanda ‘the Wall’ Waller, one of the more formidable women in the DC universe and throws in Karen Fukuhara as Tatsu ‘Katana’ Yamashiro for even more diversity.
Yet though Suicide Squad seems to tick every box for the Diversity Crowd, that same group was not merely indifferent but actively hostile to the box office hit, positively angry at how it has eclipsed the sinking ship of GB2016. At Breitbart, Ben Kew rounds up a selection of the scathing opprobrium directed towards Suicide Squad;
Perhaps my favorite example of explaining just how badly the box office hit of Suicide Squad measures up to the box office failure of GB2016 comes from Michael Phillips at the Chicago Tribune. In a piece titled Harley Quinn vs. Holtzmann? The Ghostbuster emerges with smarts, grace, Phillips gives his best shot at salvaging something from the wreck of Gb2016 while also denigrating Suicide Squad*;
After the Chicago press screening, writer Bastien recalls, “I literally held my head in my hands … this straight-up racist, sexist, poorly edited, nonsensical, ugly movie. And it was a bummer because, for once, the casting was incredibly diverse.”
The biggest surprise in terms of audience makeup was the strong turnout among females, who made up 46 percent of Friday’s audience, according to exit poling service CinemaScore. That’s unusual for a superhero film. Warners also succeeded in luring younger moviegoers: 28 percent of ticket buyers were under the age of 18. Both females and those younger moviegoers liked the pic better, giving it an A- and A, respectively.
A movie with a diverse cast of women explodes at the box office, with huge appeal to both women and younger movie goers. In other words, it does exactly what Sony executive Tom Rothman claimed Hollywood needed to do: “In his estimation, studios need to recognize and address [a lack of diversity] or “die,” and that is part of why movies like Ghostbusters are so important to the future of an already ailing business.” Yet for all its commercial success and actual diversity, for many commentators the women of Suicide Squad are more embarrassing then the potentially franchise killing GB2016.
While this summer Suicide Squad didn’t conform to exactly what the Diversity Crowd considers acceptable portrayals of women, early this year an even larger version of this same phenomenon gripped the media. In the lead up to the 2015 Oscars, the #OscarsSoWhite campaign dominated entertainment news with (at least) the Guardian, CNN, NPR, The Blaze, the LA Times (to list but a few) writing stories about this grave injustice. It seemed that no news outlet could resist the urge to talk about tiny gold statues not being distributed evenly. Much of the furor centered on the perception that black actors were being funneled into ‘stereotypical’ roles.
The Hollywood reporter came closest to quantifying this, producing an info-graphic that attempts to categorize how Black actors win their Oscars. Most notable is the degree of parsing that has gone into their classifications; apparently the character of Ray Charles, for which Jamie Foxx won an Oscar in 2004, is reducible simply to ‘drug addict’ and ‘musician’ while Denzel Washington’s conflicted and complicated Private Silas Trip is simply reduced to ‘slave‘.
At the risk of minimizing the #OscarSoWhite concerns, perhaps when a representative system reduces an honorable and upstanding Marine Corp Drill Sargent, a murderous and corrupt police detective and a vicious African dictator all simply to ‘tyrant‘**, perhaps the problem lies more in the metric then the measured. As a bonus, both the Drill Sargent and the and the corrupt detective also join the African dictator under the classification ‘violent‘. In fact, though the graphic claims that Black actors win Oscars”most often for roles that paint stereotypical (or painful) portraits of African-Americans”, the actual roles listed are so varied as to defy any description. It’s a listing of saints and sinners, reduced to a box score that obscures vastly more then it reveals.
So in the end what was the point? It’s hard to say; after all the complaints about stereotypical roles the big Oscar contender for blacks was… the slave rebellion story Birth of a Nation (before being troubled by controversy). What lesson, what policy, what guideline could be implemented after the 2015 Oscars that could possibly mollify this complaint? Worse yet, if the complaint is ultimately misplaced, based on ham-handed narrative crafting like the graphic above, what if the complaints can’t be mollified?
Now, amusing as all this insanity may be, it actually… got results: the showrunner for The 100 apologized. Let that sink in for a moment: nothing in the apology indicates that this plot twist was a poor narrative choice or didn’t make sense in the universe. No, the apology is entirely designed to pacify people who are upset that a lesbian character was treated like she was a character instead of a tool for raising self-esteem.
What motivates all this is… complicated (certainly too complicated for a post this long). In the end the motives don’t actually matter, what matters is where it logically leads. Talking about The 100 lesbian controversy, William Shatner manages to sum up the logical outcome of all this in one tweet;
What if the 100 were to say, we hear you and we won't put on anymore LGBT characters? Did you win or lose? https://t.co/vbjlkRH898
At its core the ‘Magneto or Magic Negro’ trap isn’t the result of racist, sexist or bigoted motives on the part of creators. It’s the logical result of a series of incentives that both demand more representation of ‘minority’ characters, then engages in punishing, hypersensitive offense-taking when it comes to that representation.
Imagine you are a film maker, but not a Chis Nolan or a Joss Wheadon or Russo Brother; instead you’re a new film maker, one without the clout to buck the studio’s desires. A Josh Trank, for example, whose Fantastic 4 movie was taken over by the studio and forced, like sausage through a meat grinder, into the shape the studio wanted. A director that has to fight with the studio system to get their vision on the screen and who, chances are, end up doing mostly what the studio wants even when the studio executives are imbeciles. Quick aside; yes, that’s right, the same Tom Rothman that was pumping GB2016 for Sony a few months ago is the responsible for keeping (box office hit) Deadpool in development hell while he was at 20th Century Fox.
Directors, showrunners, writers, basically everyone on the creative side of entertainment is constantly struggling against the bean counters whose primary job is to manage risk. Well, guess what makes bean counters think something is risky? Internet outrage.
See, the thing about a one dimensional, blandly positive ‘Magic Negro’ character is it’s safe. Actors don’t want safe, writers don’t want safe, directors don’t want safe; no one on the creative side really wants these safe, bland characters, just like no chef wants to make vanilla pudding all the time. Somewhere along the line, though, the creative person is taken aside and asked ‘do you really want to take the heat for having a black guy/woman/LGBT/etc do that?’
So the edges get ground down. The rough patches get smoothed out. Sometimes the path of least resistance is to change nothing at all except to make the dangerous, risky character into a white, preferably straight, male. So a movement that is theoretically devoted to increasing diversity in roles instead becomes an engine for reducing actual diversity.
There is nothing mysterious or conspiratorial about all this; it’s a simple example of incentives not lining up with goals and it is everywhere. As long as this article is I barely scratched the surface. This phenomenon shows up everywhere creativity exists: video games, books, comics, art, music…
What’s truly ironic is that the ‘fix’ to the problem is the one thing, the simplest of all things, and it’s the one thing that we can confidently predict isn’t going to happen; Stop complaining. As the saying goes, the best way to make race less important is to stop treating race like it’s important (and that goes for all the other groups as well). When a female/black/LGBT/etc character is simply a character, instead of the embodiment of an entire group, that’s when we will get the diversity almost all of us actually want.
*As an aside spare a moment to wonder, given he “had issues with the Joker’s sex toy Harley Quinn long before”, his 10-year old daughter was allowed to see the PG-13 Suicide Squad that he labels a train-wreck of violence, sexism and bad editing.
**Louis Gossett Jr.’s Marine Corp Sgt. Emil Foley, Denzel Washington’s corrupt LAPD Det. Alonzo Harris and Whitaker’s Idi Amin.
Things seem to have finally calmed down on the Ray Rice imbroglio, and as I look back, I ask: why was it that the only person we never seemed to hear from also the only person that the events really mattered to? It takes very little to suspect the Ray Rice scandal was never chiefly about what Mr. Rice did to the future Mrs. Rice in that New Jersey elevator. Now let’s be clear: I’m not making any sort of excuse for Mr. Rice’s deeds or any assumptions about the health (or lack thereof) of their marital relationship. Sometimes relationships are simply toxic and pathological.
But if that was the case here, why was so little actually done to hear the side of Janay Rice, the woman in question? Why, at the end of the affair, was Mrs. Rice turning her finger accusingly at her erstwhile saviors in the media?
The simple fact is that Mrs. Rice’s anger at the media and the NFL (specifically, functionally ending her husbands career) doesn’t require reducing Mrs. Rice to a puppet or thrall of her husband. Instead a very logical and pragmatic reason exists: she lost a metric truckload of money.
To those that say “well, our media would never celebrate a women doing a morally questionable, potentially dangerous and degrading thing for money!”, I would reply, “In fact, they do!”
For those blissfully unaware, above are some of the many, many pictures of Belle Knox (Miriam Weeks), the Duke freshman who (as an observant classmate discovered) was acting in pornographic movies, ostensibly to pay her tuition.
I’m not (well, not just) bringing her up because the blog could use a little Rule 5: the stories of Belle Knox and Janay Rice have more in common then one might think, but the reaction in the media, and specifically the interest (or lack thereof) of the media in hearing from the women in question, is very revealing.
The argument might be made that you cannot compare these women because, while Ms. Knox’ motivation can be reduced to money, suggesting that Mrs. Rice’s actions reflect a callous mercantalism cannot avoid the specter of mental infirmity. It seems ever present, the whisper that “oh, those women, they always take the abuser’s side…”, that Mrs. Rice is, if not fit to be a ward of the state, at least not a rational actor.
Which is all the stranger for the fact that Ms. Knox is a clearly troubled women. Consider this fetching Not-Safe-For-Work picture of Ms. Knox. Nothing you haven’t seen at the beach… except for something you hopefully haven’t seen before: a mass of scars on her upper thighs. These are the results of (as the article linked above notes) “Like man[sic] young women grappling with depression, I used to take it out on myself”, which is made even more troubling when she claims that she stopped cutting 5 years ago. Making the peak of her self-mutilation the tender age of thirteen.
Now this could go on forever, but there are really two issues that need to be touched on; First, the visceral. There are no two ways about it, watching the video of Ray Rice striking his then fiancee is… distressing. In the interest of intellectual honesty I should now link to the video that brought Ms. Knox to fame… but I can’t. I can’t not only because the video is pornographic, but because it is debauched. Ms. Knox may view her “enjoyment of rough and dirty, nasty and filthy, saliva-dripping and name-calling-filled sex” as sex-positive, but… well, let’s just say most people will find their gorge rising, rather then anything else.
Second, the lynchpin of the comparison: the legal. What transpired between Ray and Janay Rice however much one might object to pornography in general or the intensely violent extreme pornography in particular, it is legal. But this leads us to the stickiest problem of all: Ray Rice was no fugitive from justice, but a man that had gone through the criminal justice system and been pronounced fit to walk among the citizenry. One of the most interesting, and telling, elements of the coverage that I observed was how there was seemingly no weight given by any of the commenting class on the way the legal system adjudicated the situation. The idea that the criminal justice system worked in this case seems to be almost always be regarded with skepticism.
The ultimate fact remains: if the point of the whole affair was to help Mrs. Rice, then why is it that by all objective measures she seems to be so much worse off then if the media had respected her privacy? Why is it considered fitting that an Ivy League pornographer is invited to an in-person interview on national TV, but not a woman who’s private life is the center of a media circus? Why is it that the media did a much better job of respecting the limits and privacy of a woman that takes her clothes off for a living then the victim of a deeply personal crime? In all honestly, I don’t have a good answer.
Of course, might one advance the idea that the media is deeply, passionately, interested in the integrity of the sacred bond of marriage, and any person that desecrates the connubial vow will feel their wrath? Well…