Let’s Not Have What He’s Having
How pop culture entertainment- past and current- serves to distract from and fracture minority groups by conflating their struggles with a defective cis male drive for domination.
Having just read an excellent article by Cathy Young of Arc Digital regarding the acrimonious online and offline feuds surrounding the Wonder Woman movie and gender politics I’m struck with the realization that popular culture is not and has never been a fruitful venue in which to advocate for the intrinsic demands for the equality and equity of women, minorities and the LGBTQ community.
This is a heady realization for me being that pop culture has for better or worse been a surrogate parent to me and many others in my generation. It’s arguable that pop culutre has had more influence on my upbringing than many of the close relatives I was raised by and with. Pop culture has had such a powerful impact on my thinking that for the past 17 years I have chosen to pursue a career in film and television inspite of my understanding of the industry’s many cultural shortcomings and the very long odds of earning a decent living in this business(especially as a critically thoughtful member of an ethnic minority). The potential to reach a worldwide audience with your grandest creative ideas is nigh irresistable for an artist. It’s this dream of acceptance and validation that our entertainment industry offers which keeps every artist such as myself down in the mines everyday, digging for creative gold in the hopes of gaining a wider audience. So, you would think I would see the recent rush of content made by and for minorities as a welcome development. Sadly, I do not. Some would say the recent shift in pop culture to include a more diverse group of voices is a sign that the world and the people in it are opening their minds and changing for the better. However, the version of “diversity” that pop culture has on offer does more to distract from the realities of life as a minority while simutaneously scuttling intersectional alliances that are necessary for achieving real equality and equity.
To illustrate, let’s look at Beyonce, The Huxtables, Maura Pfefferman, and Wonder Woman. All are characters offered ostensibly as symbols of triumph over the handicaps of their minority status- both real and perceived -in spite of the rarified contexts that they exist in. Yes, Beyonce exists as a symbol of black women’s talent, strength, intelligence and business savvy but not without admitting that she achieved her success only after a lifetime of studying, training at and playing “the man’s game” with the close managerial influence of her father at every turn. The Huxtables exist as an example of a happy and functional African-American middle class family but not without accepting that in order for that to happen in real life the doctor/father and lawyer/mother must have been exceptional enough to: finish their respective schooling without crippling debt; obtain jobs paying well enough to afford a brownstone and 5 children in NYC; all while having enough of a work-life balance to be near-saintly parents & model citizens. Maura Pferfferman exists as a symbol of a socially embraced and uninhibited transgender divorcee in her 60’s but not without the understanding that she is also rather wealthy and living in a city at the forefront of LGBTQ affirmation with an almost unconditionally supportive network of friends and family. And lastly, the quality and success of the Wonder Woman movie exists as proof that a female-led and directed action film can appeal to wide audiences once it is accepted that the film is effectively a man’s action movie directed by and starring women: the character, screenplay and story were created by men and lands squarely in a definitively cis male-oriented genre.
If these characters(“Beyonce” is a character in the sense that she is a public persona and performer and not Beyonce Knowles, uber talented middle-class black girl from Houston, TX) are taken as the entertainment that popular culture markets them as then the fact that they are all minorities is simply a style choice and as entertainment were never intended to be taken seriously. On the other hand, if we, as the minorities who these characters are marketed towards are to accept these characters as figures to aspire to in the struggle for equality and equity then we have to willfully ignore the near-impossible contexts within which these characters exist and the very real contexts within which we live our real lives.
Can a family like the Huxtables exist? Absolutely. But how many young couples- regardless of race- are willing and able to pay for and endure medical/law school before starting private practices AND raising 5 happy children?.. In NYC of all places?..
Could Maura Pfefferman and her family exist in real life? Absolutely. Are her and her family’s experiences the evocative of those of, say, a working class family with a transgender parent? What if that family lived in Biloxi, MS, Tuscaloosa, AL, or Winston-Salem, NC instead of LA?..
I have no doubt that the next Beyonce is currently making her way through a talent show somewhere in America as we speak but should that young girl put aside all her other interests in pursuit of that goal? Does she have all the information she needs to even make that choice or will someone else make it for her?…
The Wonder Woman movie exists as proof that women can direct and star in a successful summer blockbuster based on a comic book, absolutely. Is that necessarily a win for feminism?… It’s important to note that all of these characters are worthy and exceptionally well developed yet they are all also examples of an extreme drive for dominance that has been characteristic of the cis male hegemony that has existed since the beginnings of empire.
Beyonce can’t be an idol and role model if she is simply a strong black woman who’s a talented and successful musician and mother- she can only be so if she’s also the most recognizable and highest paid pop-star on the entire planet. The Huxtables can’t just be an average family that argue sometimes, enjoy each other sometimes, and live comfortably but they have to be highly-paid, top-tier professionals living in a palacious house in the most affluent city in the world with indefatigable charm and good humor to boot. Maura Pfefferman can’t just be a late 60’s transgender parent of 3 who works as a mechanic in St. Paul, MN and comes out to her family; she has to have already lived a full life as a successful and affluent cis white male before she is completely free to “indulge” her transgender self with the loving support of her ex-wife and kids in one of the most LGBTQ supportive cities in the U.S.. The Wonder Woman movie can’t just be another well-crafted and successful comic book movie, it has to be the most well-crafted and successful female-led comic book movie in the world, ever. It has to have bigger box-office, bigger action, a bigger budget and the most feminist approval than any male directed or male-centric comic book movie ever could and thus is a triumph for modern feminism…?
The drive to be dominant and to dominate is not an inherent characteristic of the minority struggles that these characters claim to champion yet that dominance has somehow become the hallmark of a minority’s validation in popular culture and more broadly society as a whole. The drive for validation which has come to be synonymous with dominance in one form or another is so deeply imbeded in our thinking about politics and popular culture that it bleeds into the way we talk about and feel about the very important subjects that these characters try to generate healthy discourse around. This fact is evident in the disputes highlighted by Cathy Young’s excellent article. Anyone offering thoughts or ideas that deviate- no matter how slightly- from the group’s broadest beliefs are vehemently denounced as an “enemy” and are drowned out or ridiculed into irrelevance. In this way, the drive to be the dominant “flag-carrier” of a minority’s struggle serves only to restrict necessary and constructive debate. Instead of a rich and nuanced understanding of these minority’s this need for dominance promotes a monolithic view of “us” against “them” — no matter that the “them” in question may be fighting for the same equality as “we” are. In the quest for validation via domination minorities are divided against one another, alienating the potential allies to our respective causes.
The drive to be a predominate champion of a minority’s struggles or an unimpeachable symbol of our aspirations, is actually an internalization of the cis white male’s irrational need to control and dominate discourse in order to effectively negate challenging views. When any group- minority, majority, or otherwise- adopts the same irrational and stifling tactics as the very majority they’ve been victimized by it fractures itself into ever smaller minorities, it creates enemies where it once had allies and it looses any hope for broader understanding and mutual respect.