Monday, August 3, 2009

The question; and a thought.

The Question

After a respectable (or thereabouts) deal of reading and thought (particularly reflecting on Frank Chin's repeated critiques of Maxine Hong Kingston), this is the question that presents itself:

How to be American without being White? How to be "of Chinese descent" without slipping into reactionist sinocentrism?

Of course the cultural inheritance of The West isn't to be lightly discarded or vilified, nor is the East (or even the immigrant experience) to be mindlessly embraced and valued. The answers' typeface is far from black-and-white. But among shades of grey (not shades of greige), where does one alight?

(Hint: God is the answer. [No, this is not just a flip answer; Yes, this is still a Christian, and not only ethnic theory, blog, appearances to the contrary])

The Thought
That said, another thought occurs to me at the moment (A few minutes ago, I jokingly told a friend that tonight was my Asian-American Film Studies night): while I have previously been a proponent of the narrative-as-description(e.g., NWA's Straight Outta Compton can be justified as a descriptive, not prescriptive, outline - "not a glorification, but a presentation"), I am increasingly understanding of the need to present balanced-but-idealized portrayals in the media, serving the function of a corrective to unbalanced and two-dimensional portraits of Americans of Asian/Pacific Islander descent.

I had a fairly strong and disconcerting response to viewing, Monday night, Justin Lin's modern Asian-American crime drama Better Luck Tomorrow: there is a scene in the film, in a backyard party, where the core group of four Asian-American protagonists (portrayed as and by a varied group of Asian-American males) confront a group of White antagonists. After a brief fistfight, instigated by implicitly racial (but only indirectly racist) comments, one of the Asian-American gang pulls a gun on the lead antagonist. The subsequent beating of the White varsity athlete - leaving him bruised and bloodied, but not permanently physically harmed - both signals the core group's increasingly rapid descent into crime and materialistic excess, and foreshadows the nadir of the film, where a similar beating takes place: this time, against a spoiled Korean-American private-school kid; and this time, to the death (based on an actual incident in early-90s Southern California).

What disturbed me about my response was that, in both cases, Lim took care to portray the Asian-American protagonists as complex, well-rounded characters: morally speaking, they were on neither the high nor low ground. In both cases, there were senses of moral indignation and vindication ("getting back" at the White bullies; retaliating against the rich prep school kid who treats his girl like dirt), and also a sense of excess and transgressed boundaries.

However carefully-laid-out the mores of the film, my responses were affectively discrepant with my moral construals of the situations, and I have little choice but to admit that the distinction was likely simply because of the race of the tragic protagonists: whereas I would unhesitatingly condemn the actions in abstract, the fact that violence originating from Asian-American sources, especially against a Caucasian figure, is contradictory to my construal of the stereotype of expected Model Minority behavior (albeit a malformed and, in fact, highly inaccurate stereotype) seemed to serve as justification for my emotional consent towards the action.

This is, I willingly and mournfully agree, evidence of a shamefully akrasic mental process, the ramifications of which I'm concerned, especially regarding my vocation as a minister, a profession part of the call to which is love for the Other above the Self, love for all facets of God-created diversity, and striving on behalf of reconciliation, healing, and understanding (Gal. 3:26-29, among others). However, it is not, I would guess, a drastically atypical response to such media depicting violence from an oppressed (or, more often, nowadays, suppressed) minority directed towards the dominant majority.

One thing that I always wondered, watching the incredible HBO series The Wire, a bastion of verisimilitude and narrative-as-depiction-of-reality, was how so many Black voices (not only, or even particularly often, academic Black voices, but definitely a predominance of street voices, as seen anywhere from to the Smoking Section) could willingly applaud explicitly villainous figures, or at least what seemed to me at the time to be: the drug lords (Marlo, Stringer, Avon), shooters (Snoop, Christ Partlow, etc.), and other Baltimore inner-city hood figures (the more complex morality of characters such as Omar Little, Bubbles, etc., is of course less cut-and-dry).

Of course, what I didn't understand at the time, on a subjective level (and am now only beginning to scratch the surface of, as I begin to analyze my personal response to depictions of violence by the oppressed), is that the characters are not usually being lauded for their actions: their actions are the signifiers of a larger motivation, that is, defying power and breaking stereotype. The problem is that reactive stereotypes - the clever, tactical, chess-piece-moving crime lord as a response to the dumb, happy, bumbling Sambo - are also a system of entrapment and limitation for minorities: we sketch out extremes, but fill in no grays, leaving room for the Huxtables and the Barksdales, but fewer and fewer Redd Foxxes in between [note: by "Redd Foxx," I meant, a sympathetically- and humanely-portrayed member of the honest lower class, i.e. in Sanford & Son. Not quite sure if this was too opaque a reference.].

So, another question: where do we locate the line between audience discernment and filmmaker's discretion? Certainly the filmmaker should feel at liberty to create Art: but, and this is a topic on which I've touched before (specifically, in my senior Philosophy thesis), what is the intersection between Morally Good Work and Good Art? In that previous work, I strongly advocated for the imposition of moral sanctions on a work of art (humor, in that case), due to both a priori and a posteriori factors that seem to fall in favor of morality being a determining factor for the quality of art.

But the question then becomes one of reasonable doubt, or burden of proof: does the filmmaker (or rapper, other musician, artist, etc.) presume an audience comprised of the Lowest Common (discerning) Denominator, and simply create art that is unabashedly moralizing? In such cases, films become preachy, and subtlety is specifized out of the equation.

But the alternative seems more and more distasteful: choices of presentation content and form are, implicitly, choices to condone audiences' viewing of particular material (for this reason, I recently started but could not finish both Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho [novel] and Jody Hill's Observe and Report [film]). Previously, I held to a reasonably extremely high view of individual volition: I acknowledged the real occurrence of akrasic mind states, but did not pragmatically concern myself over them. More and more, I regret this: both personally, discovering the truth of the saying that "once seen, you cannot un-see" certain materials; and pragmatically, in terms of furthering social progress and harmony, realizing (as I did when watching Better Luck...) that portrayals of immoral or unconscionable behavior, even when within the framework of a largely critical work, have the potential to grasp the imagination in a much stronger net than I had previously wanted to believe.

Of course, the potential remains: I may merely be particularly weak-minded, an outsider. I am familiar with the major arguments: kids know the difference between DOOM and the halls of their High School, and killing a few hundred digital representations in GTA IV won't lead anyone to the slaughterhouse. In fact, proponents of the gaming industry argue, such artificial violence, far from promoting violence, actually helps those in whom rage and anger have built up to let off some steam, destressing and potentially averting a future tragedy.

Previously, I was highly sympathetic to such claims; in fact, I agreed (as do I still now, though with greater qualification) that freedom of speech was a paramount right. But, as recent developments in the video gaming world have shown, freedom of speech, as with any other freedom, can be abused, not for the sake of art, but for the sake of commerce: in such a case, use of freedom does, I increasingly believe, actually constitute abuse or exploitation of speech, leading to negative social repercussions and, ultimately, indirect disenfranchisement of or disconnection from the Other (whether Otherization occurs by race, gender, or simple emotional distance). That such depictions constitute a legal problem, as statutes currently stand, is highly unlikely, I assume; still, my concern is not with the present legality, but rather the present ethics of the situation and, based on an increasing understanding of the ethical landscape, future policy decisions.

Several other areas remain to be addressed. Among them: a persistent question, so far as I understand, in Asian-American Film Studies is the pragmatic response to limited roles for Asian-American actors: marginalized as "wimpy businessmen... or villains with balls", several Asian-American actors have chosen to play the "villains with balls" (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, The Slanted Screen). It's difficult to blame them; but it's also easy to be troubled by this response, on both sides of the racial divide (Us and Other). The Mortal Kombat villain Shang Tsung is, while not emasculated, possessor of a twisted and villainous strength: it is easy to see in him the same archetype as a Stringer Bell or Avon Barksdale, wealthy, organized, manipulative boogeymen. The choice (and I pray it is a false dichotomy) presented to Asian-American actors seems to be marginalization or villainization: is it a wonder that many chose to be villainized?

And of course, one doesn't have to look far to see why an Asian-American presence was Othered and, subsequently, villainized: the widely-documented phenomenon of Yellow Peril was a racial agenda explicitly furthered by the spread of anti-miscegenation laws in direct response to (among other factors) a fear of competition by the Other.

As a friend commented on one of my several earlier posts, the point is not to find a scapegoat: White American dominance, Asian American complicity, and industry/industrial greed have definitely all played key roles in bringing the place of Asian-Americans in the media to their contemporary position. The point is, however, to find the roots of a pernicious construal of an entire section of American society, to see how it insinuated itself into wider American culture, and to find a healthy, healing, reconciliatory means of mutual affirmation and support.

No comments: