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Racialized Representations of Women in U.S. Media at Frauenkreise Berlin

Frauenkreise Talk

Helen, Heidi, Cassandra, Marca, Gabi, and Vicky

On Friday, June 13, I presented “Racialized Representations of Women in U.S. Media” at Frauenkreise in Berlin at the invitation of Project Manager Gabi Zekina. Below, you will find a written version of the introduction to my analysis. Click here to view the complete PowerPoint presentation, and click here to listen to the audio (approximately 90 minutes) recorded by Cassandra Ellerbe-Dück. I would also like to thank Vicky Germain for also recording the event and for suggesting that I post it to the web for you all to listen to and engage.

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Before I begin the analytical discussion, I want to spend about 10 minutes introducing myself and my work to you. As you know, my name is Heidi R. Lewis, and I’m an Assistant Professor in the Feminist & Gender Studies Program at Colorado College, where I also serve as a core faculty member in the Race & Ethnic Studies Program. My teaching and research interests include Black Feminist Theory, Transnational Feminisms, and Critical Studies of media and popular culture, feminism, race, whiteness, and hip hop. I’m also an Associate Editor for The Feminist Wire, a peer-reviewed online publication that provides sociopolitical and cultural critiques of anti-feminist, racist, and imperialist politics pervasive in all forms and spaces of private and public lives.

Alexander

Marissa Alexander

Regarding my own career, I have begun to situate myself as a theoretical activist, because often, especially within “liberal” and “progressive” communities in the United States, I hear people denigrate theory in an effort to communicate the necessity of action. For instance, sometimes my audiences, including my students, grow frustrated when they ask about what they can “do” to affect change, and I respond that theorizing is one of the most important things that can be done in response to injustice. I respond in this way, because for me, theory is simply a way of thinking about, understanding, and explaining the world. How many of you are familiar with the Marissa Alexander case in the United States? It’s my contention that a theory sentenced Marissa Alexander to 20 years for self-defense. Of course, the racist legal system, including police, attorneys, the jury, and the judge, sentenced Marissa Alexander. However, this sentencing would not have been possible without racist and sexist theories about Black women’s bodies and lives, theories that suggest that our bodies are not worthy of love, affection, and protection, theories that suggest that our lives don’t matter and that they’re not worth saving. Only racist and sexist thinking would allow someone to see Marissa Alexander as anything other than a victim.

At this point, then, I’d like to clarify the theoretical framework of my work on U.S. media, a framework situated at the nexus of cultural studies, critical media studies, and feminist studies. As Paula Saukko points out, “The trademark of the cultural studies has been an interest in the interplay between lived experience, texts or discourses, and the social context,” which relies heavily on an investment in multiple validities. Saukko points out that this draws attention to the fact that the theories, methods and modes of analysis that underpin our research open up different and always partial and political views on reality. Multiple validities ask us to be more critically aware of what drives our research. Additionally, acknowledging that there is more than one way of making sense of social phenomena asks us to come up with a more multidimensional, nuanced, and tentative way of understanding one’s object of study. Multiple validities, then, suggest that we should approach reality in less simplistically dichotomous ways, such as “true” or “false” and “right” or “wrong,” and instead to develop more complex terms. This does not mean that there are no rules for conducting research. It simply means that rather than one universal rule that applies everywhere, there are different rules, and we need to be aware how they make us relate to reality differently. There are three methodological approaches to uncovering multiple validities: hermeneutic/ dialogic validity, which evaluates research in terms of how truthfully it captures the lived worlds and experiences of the people and communities being studied; poststructuralist/ deconstructive validity, which evaluates research in terms of how well it manages to unravel social tropes and discourses that, over time, have come to pass for “truth;” and realist/ contextual validity, which refers to the capability of research to locate the phenomena it is studying within the wider social, political, and even global, context. My talk this evening will be methodologically reliant upon the latter two frameworks insomuch as I will examine how advertisements communicate tropes and discourses that have come to pass as “truth” for racialized women in the U.S. and also how these tropes and discourses can be best theorized by examining the wider sociopolitical contexts in which the advertisements are situated.

Stuart Hall

Stuart Hall

Regarding critical media studies, James Lull argues, “The most potent effect of mass media is how they subtly influence their audiences to perceive social roles and routine personal activities.” This happens because media functions as a hegemony, which Lull defines as a “power or dominance that one social group holds over others.” Along these lines, Antonio Gramsci argues that hegemony and mass media “are tools that ruling elites use to perpetuate their power, wealth, and status by popularizing their own philosophy, culture, and morality.” More specifically, Sut Jhally argues that “advertising thus does not work by creating values and attitudes out of nothing but by drawing upon and rechanneling concerns that target audiences already shares.” Stuart Hall would, of course, connect this to racism and white supremacy. He writes, “Every word and image of such programmes are impregnated with unconscious racism, because they are all predicated on the unstated and unrecognized assumption that blacks are the source of the problem.” Hall defines this as “inferential (or unconscious) racism,” which leads to “apparently naturalized representations of events and situations relating to race, whether factual or fictional, which have racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions.” Audiences typically only respond viscerally to “overt racism,” which Hall defines as “occasions when open and favorable courage is given to arguments, positions and spokespersons who are in the business of elaborating a racist policy.”

Scholars writing within the tradition of feminist theory have advanced these arguments by taking an intersectional approach that considers race, socioeconomic status, gender, sexuality, and other social markers when examining mediated constructions. In “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” bell hooks explains that in “mass culture, imperialist nostalgia takes the form of re-enacting and re-ritualizing in different ways the imperialist, colonizing journey as narrative fantasy of power and desire, of seduction by the Other.” Further, she explains that white males “claim the body of the colored Other instrumentally, as unexplored terrain, a symbolic frontier that will be fertile ground for their reconstruction of the [white, Western, heteropatriarchal] masculine norm, for asserting themselves as transgressive, desiring subjects. They call upon the Other to be both witness and participant in this transformation.” Marian Sciachitano explains that these “heteropatriarchal and imperialist politics of domination that desires and demands the construction of ‘fantasy islands,’ ‘new planets,’ and ‘playgrounds’ where Black and ‘Third World’ women are positioned as interchangeable, exotic, sexual commodity-objects.” It is this practice of commodifying the “Other’s” interchangeable, essentialized difference that, as hooks claims “promotes paradigms of consumption wherein whatever difference the Other inhabits is eradicated, via exchange, by a consumer cannibalism that not only displaces the Other but denies significance of that Other’s history through a process of decontextualization.” I also want to point out here that throughout this talk, I won’t describe these constructions as “stereotypes,” which refers to “too-simple and therefore distorted images of a group, generalizations, usually exaggerated or oversimplified and often offensive, that are used to describe or distinguish a group.” Instead, I will use Patricia Hill Collins’ “controlling images” theory, which I think more effectively conveys the implications of stereotypes for subjugated people and communities.

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Click here to view the PowerPoint presentation.
Click here to listen to the audio recording of the discussion.

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Wannsee Lake, Theorizing Race and Racism, and the Carnival of Cultures: Our Second Weekend in Berlin

Lake

Melissa and Casey on the Wannsee Lake Beach

Our second weekend in Berlin was eventful but also relaxing, which was deliberate. I planned to wake up late (but still early) on Saturday to go to Wannsee Lake with some of the FemGeniuses. However, I (thankfully) didn’t wake up until 11 am, and didn’t leave for the lake until 1 pm, arriving around 2 pm. Melissa, Kadesha, Casey, Stefani, Ximena, and Nicole had already arrived and had taken quite a few dips in the lake already. I bought a slushie and sat on the beach only to enter the water a short while later to watch Melissa, Kadesha, and Casey go down the slide a few times. The water was nice, but I didn’t get too wet. I really came mostly for the pedal boats.

Boating

Nicole and Kadesha on the Pedal Boat

Nicole, Kadesha and I waited about 30 minutes for our chance to ride—Melissa, Ximena, Stefani, and Casey opted out, but we had so much fun! It was so relaxing, even with the pedaling! I can’t wait to come back next summer and pedal boat with Tony, AJ, and Chase! We rented the boat for an hour but only boated for about 30-40 minutes, but we all could honestly see how someone would spend a whole hour out on the water wading around with the other boaters, the ducks, and the swans—yes, swans!

Tipica

Casey and Melissa Sharing at Tipica

An hour or so later, Melissa, Kadesha, Casey, and I had dinner at Tipica, which was pretty good. Stefani, who left the lake early, and Blaise also joined us. I had a pretty awesome Mexican Fizz drink—not sure what was in it—and some nice beef tacos. Yummy to the tummy, indeed, but definitely not cheap. Haha! Still, I was full enough to go back to my apartment and get some good shut eye.

Hatef

Hatef Soltani of CrossPoint

I woke up a bit earlier on Sunday to meet with Nadine Saeed of the Oury Jalloh Initiative, along with Hatef Soltani and Mahdiyeh Kalhori of CrossPoint, in order to discuss racism and justice in the U.S.. Nadine also invited Beril to discuss racism and justice in Turkey. I was honored that we were invited by Nadine to be part of this documentary, because I’ve become more committed to transnational theoretical, pedagogical, and artistic activism (not in that order and inextricably linked, at least for me), and talking with her has been a large part of that deeper commitment.

I spoke at length about Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, and Marissa Alexander in order to communicate the necessity of intersectional analyses and activism. As a theoretical activist, I find it troubling when, especially within “liberal” and “progressive” communities, people denigrate theory in an effort to communicate the necessity of action. For instance, sometimes my audiences, including my students, grow frustrated when they ask what they can “do” to affect change, and I respond that theorizing is one of the most important things that can be done in response to injustice.

Nadine

Nadine Watching CrossPoint TV

Theory is simply a way of thinking about, understanding, and explaining the world. And it’s my contention that theory killed Trayvon Martin and Oury Jalloh. This same theory sentenced Marissa Alexander to 20 years for self-defense. Of course, George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin. And the police killed Oury Jalloh. And the United States legal system sentenced Marissa Alexander. However, those murders and that sentencing would not have been possible without white supremacist heteropatriarchal theories about Black and Brown bodies and lives, theories that suggest that these bodies are not worthy of love, affection, and protection, theories that suggest that these lives don’t matter and that they’re not worth saving. George Zimmerman began to name himself as Latino, especially during and after the trial, but that still does not exempt him from this theoretical framework. Only this kind of thinking would allow Zimmerman to see Trayvon Martin as inherently dangerous and violent because of his gender, his race, and his clothing. Only this kind of thinking would allow someone to see Marissa Alexander as anything other than a victim during her trial.

Beril at Oury Jalloh

Beril at Oury Jalloh

I was also quite interested in Beril’s narrative about her own struggles as a young Turkish woman studying in the United States. I was particularly intrigued by her relatively recent realization that uniting in struggle is one of the most important ways in which we can fight injustice, because isolated and disjointed communities are a strong tactic of those that are invested in our subjugation. I also appreciated learning more about the struggles Turkish communities face, especially pertaining to migration and the demonstrations last summer in Gezi Park. I’m really looking forward to seeing the outcome of this conversation, because all of the CrossPoint videos I have watched—earlier today and since returning to my apartment—have been terrifying and powerful.

Carnival

Carnival of Cultures 2014

After the interview, Celine and I went to the Carnival of Cultures to watch some of the parade. The Carnival is held from June 6-8 around Pentecost, and is organized by Philippa Ebéné, Executive and Artistic Director of the Werkstatt der Kulturen. Celine and I had fun taking in some Caipirinhas and talking about politics, as we love to do with each other, but we couldn’t help but notice the overwhelming sea of white faces at the parade. Black attendees were scant, and so were Black participants in the parade (at least the short part we saw). Both of us are fully aware that there are plenty white folks in many parts of Africa, but we also wondered why there were few Black African folks marching in decidedly African parts of the parade. I don’t know enough about the Carnival or the parade or Berlin or Germany—and we only stayed for a few hours—to provide a salient analysis of the “goings on,” but I am interested in learning more about the history of the Carnival, which is more than 60 years old, and its relationship with the culture of Berlin, including all of its migrant communities. Along these lines, I was made aware of some racism that Philippa has faced while planning the Carnival, and I’m eager to learn more about the role that has played in the organizing process. Perhaps I’ll write more about this next summer…lots to ponder.

Me at WannseeUntil next time,

Heidi