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It's Too Late For Thinking
The things that come to mind at 2 am
The things that come to mind at five am 
25th-Jun-2009 05:27 am
I know this journal is entitled The Things that Come to Mind at Two AM but today, you get one that comes to mind at five am. Courtesy of the dogs who woke me up at 4:30 am to be let out. So I was lying here in bed trying not to think of anything and my mind began to wander, as it often does.

Just before going to bed last night, I was reading a criticism about the Transformer's movie. I saw it yesterday in a jam-packed theater. I LOVED it but I'm a transformer fangirl from WAY back. Anyway, the criticism has to do with two of the minor characters who were expressly created for the film. Some people are saying that they are racial stereotypes. They "Jive talk" and fight all the time and don't read. One has a gold tooth. Apparently, this makes them caricatures and stereotypical black characters. I say apparently, because I didn't see it.

Anyway, my thought was this: Do you suppose some people, more sensitive to racial stereotypes, are predisposed to seeing them? You know, in a "If you go looking for it, you will find it," sort of way? I'm not racist in any way, shape or form. Despite growing up in Utah, which has a minority population of, last I checked, less than ten percent, I had friends from all color categories. I grew up in an Hispanic neighborhood. My friends included children from Polynesian families, white families, and yes, even African-American families. In Utah! Yeah, I know. My grandma's next door neighbors, who babysat me from time to time, were Japanese. (The father was interned during WWII.)

I just didn't see the racial stereotypes that some people are complaining about. The article I read can be found here, at Yahoo news.

Now, and this will be basically spoiler free, when I saw the twins, in car form, my first thought was, "OMGOMGOMG!! What car is that??!! It looks almost like a Chevy SmartCar?! That's SOO CUUUTTTEEEE!!!!! I silently commiserated with myself that Sasha would never fit in one and therefore, it didn't matter how cute it was, I would not be buying one. Once they transformed and started talking, I did not think "black." I thought "punk-ass." Punk-ass does not equal black in my mind. I also thought they kind of looked like KISMET. I did not think they looked black, as some critics have said. Someone in the article also said there was a bucktoothed black actor in one scene, but I don't recall it. I thought all the African-American actors looked like, well, African American soldiers proud to do their duty.


Now it stopped. Thirty second rain storm! A new world record for this side of HELL!

*rereads* Oh so, anyway. That was my initial reaction and thoughts as I read the article last night and thought about it this morning. But then I had a further thought. These robots were created for comic relief and something for the kids to enjoy. Because Transformers is a family movie, apparently. I mean, sure, it's based on a line of toys from the 1980s and a related cartoon, probably specifically created to sell said line of toys. But there is an awful lot of swearing, sexual innuendo, and blowing up of things for it to be considered a family movie. I still would have taken my child to it. I'm not judging, just saying.

I am getting to my final point, honest.

So, here you have two robot cars who fight, swear, call each other names, are twin brothers, and don't read. And this is the comic relief that was added to the film? It appeals to children, no doubt. And as I said before, I thought they were cute and yes they were funny and I laughed. But my final thought was this, "why?" Why were these characters added to appeal to children? I watched the Transformers as a child. Bumblebee and Optimus Prime appealed just fine to me. Why do our children need to be appealed to with robots that fight, swear, and can't read? Why can't Bumblebee's loyalty or Optimus' inner strength, and his faith in humanity (and his "don't fuck with the things I care about" attitude) be the part of the movie that appeals to children?

Do we fear them incapable of that deeper connection? If we didn't pander to them, they would rise to the occasion, I promise.

Is it easier to appeal to a "lowest common denominator?" (Which feeds into the dumbing down of America and the rise of Mediocrity.) If someone's worried about laughs, Bumblebee is pretty damn funny. If they were added for slapstick value, that's fine too. I understand slapstick comedy. I'm also a three stooges fan. But if that were the case, then the explanation should have been that the director wanted some slapstick to break up the explosions.

And that was my thought, at five am.
Consulting the Map 
25th-Jun-2009 04:52 pm (UTC)
*nods* I've often thought that the people who write up characters like that don't actually have or interact with children/teens and are too old to remember how it felt to be talked down to - and so they think these characters are the only ones kids will relate to, since they aren't as sophisticated as they are. Or that they figure that the studio producers are like that, and the only way to get their shows out is to include these characters, for salability (hope its more this than the former).

I think kids of all ages respond better to characters that can't read like Broadway and Hudson (in Disney's Gargoyles), who don't because where they came from (Scotland, 1000 AD) didn't expect anyone but a select few to read (mainly the only ones who read in the Dark Ages were priests), then put them in the 1990's New York, where everyone is expected to read at some level - and then show those characters facing this situation, then learning to read. Much more identification there, I think, simply because when you're young, you are wanting the skills and perks and power of adults, and are trying to figure out how to get there - and encountering obstacles on the way.

I remember some analysis of the TMNT cartoons, and how surprised they were that young girls were attracted to them, because they didn't expect girls to be attracted to a show with a lot of fighting and physical stuff instead of fluff and pretty things and only one real girl character (who was far more developed in the original Eastman and Laird comics, btw - damn, April got dumbed down). They asked the girls and got back, (paraphrased) 'well, they're fighting to protect their family against all the people who want to hurt them and take them away from each other'. Didn't hurt that they were *green* so anyone could identify with them, same as (IMO) the Transformers. I never heard about the (reported) demographics on the Transformers, but I expect it was similar.

The studios are still writing (and accepting) scripts from the 50's, I think - they haven't really changed that paradyme (sp?) yet. Or they cancel (read - put into horrible time slot for self-defeat) when it does break the mold (there goes The Unusuals... *sigh* Sara Connor *sob* Chuck? please don't go *whimper*)...

While they might find them funny, I think (hope) most kids (that would be old enough to go sit in a theater and watch this) laugh at the antics of the flat characters, but are more interested in the more complex ones.

I'd have to say it's writing to fit the studio producer's ok, though. Especially for "Children's" movies/programs.
26th-Jun-2009 12:00 am (UTC)
I find myself nodding an awful lot at your response. I think you have valid points. I loved TMNT because it was fun action and I was a tomboy who did NOT watch shows like My Little Pony on general principle. I also respected Splinter's wisdom and adored Donatello's science-geekiness.

I'm trying not to be spoiler-y about the lack of reading skills in the twin robots, it was more shrugged off, as if it was OK that they didn't read and people would be crazy to assume they could. Now, I'm willing to accept that I am sensitive to that particular take of them simply because I'm teaching children to read this summer and was appalled to hear such a throw-away line. From that perspective, it's not funny that they can't read, it's sad.

I think you're right re: the paradigm that runs Hollywood and the sadness that surrounds anything that isn't "lowest common denominator" banal. I keep hoping that cable television and internet competition will improve upon that but so far it just means more of the same simple formulaic shows with flat characters. Good thing we do read and do have books. I hope they don't go the way of newspapers.
26th-Jun-2009 01:20 am (UTC)
Surprise, I'm going to agree with e film studies academics from the article! I took a class on pop culture and education so this is why I'm agreeing, btw. Overt racism is easy to spot, but subtle racism isn't because it comes in small bits and, well, isn't overt. It comes in subtle things, like cars that are supposed to be 'wannabe gangster'--well, what does that mean exactly? And if you slip it in, albeit perhaps unconsciously on the part of the movie ppl, you perpetuate the idea that a stereotype is ok b/c it's subtle--it's just a car, or just an animated character, or just a [....]. It's that "just a" that rationalizes it and continues the complex history of racial stereotypes in the media. If we were to plunk the Transformers cars next to some of the African-American "slapstick" characters from the 30s, 40s, or 50s, I think a lot of ppl would be surprised at how little has changed "to achieve comic effect or relief" by using some pretty degrading material. That the actors don't find anything wrong with it speaks to the subtlety and ingrained nature of it. And, if studios are accepting and developing scripts from the 50s with little changes, as IndyKat says, then I'm not even surprised that the stereotypes perpetuate. I think that's worse, that we're not surprised and that we very often don't see it.

/my two cents
26th-Jun-2009 01:57 am (UTC)
More nodding. I do understand and agree with what you are saying and I agree with the film study academics about the subtle and insipid nature of racism in pop culture. It is there and it perpetuates. But I also wonder if people are more likely to see racism if they are actually looking for it, perhaps to the point where they are seeing racism that others would say didn't exist. Do the people that see it want to see it whereas the people who don't see it don't want to see it? How much racism is perceived just because we (not you and me 'we', generalized society 'we') want to find it? I'm pretty sure that if someone tries hard enough they can be offended by anything.

Randomly, there are no black ganster wannabes in Utah. If they were going to be ganster in my mind, I'd have to see them as either Polynesian or Latino/a. Also, in a related way, if I don't see them in a racial light, am I then really racist and just don't know it? Have I been duped by the subtlety? None of these questions are meant to attack your comment, McHomie, I'm self-questioning. Because, as I said, I'm pretty sure I don't really care what color people are or what their culture is and for me, a robot is a robot, even if it can't read and does fight and might have a gold tooth and some people say it is a 'black' caricature. When I read the article, I knew exactly what the critics were referring to. I've seen my share of blaxploitation 1970s films and minstrel shows. However, in the moment of actually watching the film, I just saw two punk-ass robots, with no race, who were sending the wrong message to kids about reading or lack thereof.

More ponderings. Maybe I shouldn't think at five am. :-)
26th-Jun-2009 02:05 am (UTC)
Adding to this, just to be clear, I did NOT see the twins as ganster wannabes. I was actually surprised to learn that THAT was the 'effect' they were going for. I also had no idea they were 'Jive talking.'

Hmmm.... I wonder if I had NOT grown up in Utah if I would have seen them differently.
26th-Jun-2009 02:11 am (UTC)
OH wait! This is an interesting aside. What about "gay" characters? Like those two rhinos in ice age?

.... If we respected 'jive talking' as a positive personality trait, would it be a negative stereotype? If minstrel shows had not relied on racism for laughs, would we have had blaxploitation films? What part does white man's burden play in Mudflap and Skids' inability to read?

Inquiring minds want to know!!
26th-Jun-2009 02:12 am (UTC)

I want a Bumblebee action figure!!
26th-Jun-2009 04:13 am (UTC)
LOLZ! I think I said everything my brain had tonight in IM. Thanks for the random deep ponderings, homie!
26th-Jun-2009 10:00 pm (UTC)
AAAAAAAHHHHH! - *drools, sends pic to Hubby* Ok, one of us is getting that for Christmas. Rock!
26th-Jun-2009 10:24 pm (UTC)
I think it's prolly a combination of the two, the looking for it and it being there. Oo, my nephew just saw it, I should ask him what he saw just as an aside (since he's the last one to pay attention to the news and reviews). Of course, when I see the movie, I'll be more likely to see it now I know about it. I'm reminded of something I read a few weeks ago in Places I Never Meant to Be, by Walter Dean Myers: On Censorship: "What are we to make of the idea that so many African-American writers confine their topic matter solely to issues concerning the black experience in the United States? We can believe that race is so exciting to these writers that they are compelled to explore it in every aspect and to limit their subjects to other African-Americans. Or we can believe that there is something very wrong with this picture. I believe that what is happening is censorship by omission. "This has been a quiet issue among African-American writers for decades. Langston Hughes, John A. Williams, and Zora Neale Hurston all spoke of the restraints placed on them as writers. "Limiting the ideas that will be published not only prevents the propagation of those ideas, it also corrupts the development of the writer. But censorship by omission does one other thing: It keeps the evils of censorship hidden not only from the general public but from other black writers who might be attracted to literature if they did not have to filter their thoughts solely through their racial identity." Strangely enough (or perhaps not), another submission for this book - "Spear" by Julius Lester - involves a black teen boy realizing something very similar. (I cannot recommend Places I Never Meant to Be strongly enough; these are great thought-provoking shorts) Perhaps the cry of 'racism' is raised so often simply because they don't get any other character spot - all the new characters are (still) too similar to the older ones. And ...yeah..., to me that would be a form of racism, the subtle and therefore harder to prove *and* remove...
26th-Jun-2009 10:25 pm (UTC)
and evidently, the format removed all my 'returns'. oops, 'paragraph endings'. :p :)
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