Thursday, 26 February 2015

markers of cultural identity

various things in my life have been keeping me busy these days, so that i'm finding little energy to write.  but i've had a bit of time to read about the whole patricia arquette oscar speech thing and intersectionality, which reminded me about another issue related to race.

i don't watch many TV programmes, but favourite ones tend to be legal dramas.  from "LA law" to "ally mcbeal" to "the practice" to "the good wife" (not so much "boston legal", unfortunately).  so i was definitely interested in the new series "how to get away with murder".  i've watched the 3 episodes that have aired, and i really like it.  i love the centering of black people, the strong character development of them, i the central character in both her toughness and vulnerability.  in much the same way as i love the character of kalinda sharma in "the good wife".

the only thing that bothers me with the show is, on the face of it, pretty trivial.  it's that the hair of the black women on the show is invariably straight.  i'd have to go back through the 3 episodes to confirm, but it seems to me that there wasn't any major black woman on the show with the tight curls that many african women have.  i've looked at images of viola davis, and it seems to me that is her natural hair style.

the thing is that it isn't just this one show.  it's a thing with most movies, tv shows, music videos, most of popular culture.  it's a thing that has been written about a lot in america, and here's just one article.  it's a thing that's rooted in american history, where blackness has historically been considered bad, unworthy and the expression of blackness disdained.  it's about a history where black women have had straightening products pushed on them for decades, with the notion that having straight hair makes them more acceptable (reminds me of the whitening cream marketed so strongly in many asian countries).

this is not about viola davis and her individual choice - she gets to present herself how she pleases, as does any black woman.  i certainly don't think of any one of them as sell-outs for choosing to have straight hair.  it's more about a show that is going past so many stereotypes but still adhering to this one.  it's about how a natural marker of identity (and yes, i know that not all african women have natural curly hair) is erased from popular culture - unless it's a period drama.

we have a parallel here in nz, with maori.  the way that moko are treated in every day kiwi life is quite similar.  they're considered unacceptable for employment; they are often viewed as something scary or suspicious; they are rarely seen on our tv screens or in our newspapers.  they seem to me to be an aspect of cultural identity that has been sidelined instead of celebrated.  i can't speak for maori in general, or any maori person specifically, so apologies if i have this wrong.  but could it be that a lot more of them would choose to have one if there wasn't this erasure and negativity surrounding the practice?

i guess these issues are of importance to me because i wear one of aspect of my identity so very visibly, and by choice.  i pay consequences for that choice, of course.  daring to have a marker of identity that is so different from the majority can be seen as an affront, a challenge to the status quo.  hence there can be pushback.  so be it, i find that's not enough to stop me.

but i do know that it shouldn't be so.  i shouldn't be getting push-back.  neither should anyone else, simply for making an overt display of who they are.  or for sporting a marker of cultural identity.  that's why i want this show to be braver, stronger, more challenging of stereotypes than it already is.


Lindsay Mitchell said...

"i can't speak for maori in general, or any maori person specifically, so apologies if i have this wrong. but could it be that a lot more of them would choose to have one if there wasn't this erasure and negativity surrounding the practice?"

I can speak for one "specifically" who told me when she asked her uncle whether she should/could get a chin moko was told she didn't have the standing to (a form of "negativity" which angered me knowing her personal efforts to overcome a hard past).

It's a personal decision to either ignore the traditional sanction (or non-sanction) or embrace the wider cultural significance. It'd be interesting to know whether other considerations like lowered employment chances affect the decision.

julia said...

Not sure if you've reached that bit yet, but the straight hair you see isn't actually Annelise's natural hair. It's a power wig she wears over the top of her natural, curly but short hair. The moment you first see that is a moment of intense vulnerability for the character. I think the interplay between her public and private hair is actually really interesting, and makes useful comments on certain looks required for women, y especially women of colour, to project power.

stargazer said...

i got that she was wearing a wig, that was before i checked out her real life images. and i found it interesting that she was wearing the wig in bed as well - though not necessarily while she was sleeping. but i'm really looking forward to the scene you describe, because that does sound pretty awesome.

Lash of Thanatos said...

God, Ally McBeal? I can't believe that a feminist woman could watch anti-feminist dreck like Ally McBeal that infantilises women and trivialises their professional status.

LudditeJourno said...

Beautiful post stargazer, thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Apparently later in the season she removes her wig - a pretty shocking moment for mainstream USA, which generally does not see african american women with natural hair. And there is a LOT of prejudice against natural hair as being unprofessional and unkempt. Witness the comments made about Zendaya Coleman at the Oscars wearing her hair in locks...

Anonymous said...

Whoops, I see you need anonymous comments to have some form of moniker. That last comment was by me - Gina